The Pentagon maintains an extensive surveillance system in the Persian Gulf region that includes satellites, drones and ground and sea-based sensors. One of the central elements of Washington surveillance in the Middle East is the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone. It is a tailless aircraft, with pod-shaped sensors built into each wing. Few details of the unmanned aerial vehicle’s characteristics have been released, but estimates of its wingspan range from approximately 20m to 27m.
Similar devices helped the US to spy on Iraq before the 2003 invasion, where the Predator MQ-1 drone was used to survey Iraqi military operations.
It had been described by many as a revolutionary influence on modern warfare, and became a central aspect of pre invasion combat.
In December 2002, a Predator drone was shot down in southern Iraq while conducting conducting a reconnaissance mission.
The drone was destroyed, leading to fury in Washington as Jim Wilkinson, then Spokesman for Central Command said:” This action is the latest chapter in a lengthy list of hostile acts by the Iraqi regime.”
Similar methods and flashpoints are occurring today between the US and Iran – for instance, a drone shot down by Tehran as recently as June this year.
An RQ-170 was captured by Iranian forces near the city of Kashmar in northeastern Iran in 2011.
The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyber-warfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it, after initial reports from Western news sources claimed that it had been “shot down”.
The US government initially denied the claims but later President Obama acknowledged that the downed aircraft was a US drone.
Instead, the US retaliated with cyber attacks on Tehran missile-control systems, announced new sanctions, and requested a closed-door UN Security Council meeting to address the regional tension.
Washington’s eagerness to keep tabs on Iranian activities spiked amid disagreements over the nuclear deal, in which Trump accused Iran of violating restrictions in the agreement aimed at reducing Tehran’s nuclear weapon operations.
The deal was abandoned by Trump in May 2018, and has resulted in increasing tensions and sanctions, which culminated in Tehran’s attack on two Saudi oil plants last month.
Relations between the West and Iran are fraught, with President Hassan Rouhani still denying Iranian responsibility despite widespread accusations and evidence.