The United States has denied reports that Iran "caught" and landed a small U.S. drone flying over the Persian Gulf. The unarmed drone, called a ScanEagle, was flying in Iranian airspace when it was brought down by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's FARS news agency reported today.
But the U.S. Navy says it did not lose the drone, adding that the ScanEagle is an "off the shelf variety" and could have belonged to another country.
"The U.S. Navy has complete control over every unmanned vehicle we operate in the Middle East," said Cmd. Jason Salata of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, which manages naval assets in the region. "We have lost ScanEagles in the past, but not recently."
The commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, told Iranian media that the drone had been conducting reconnaissance flights in the past few days when it was spotted and "hunted." Fadavi also boasted of Iran's "full intelligence supremacy" over foreign operations in the region, FARS reported.
Video was released of two Revolutionary Guard officials displaying the drone, mounted on a stand, which appeared to be fully intact. On a backdrop of a map of the Persian Gulf was a message in English and Farsi reading, "We shall trample on the US."
The unmanned ScanEagle, 4-feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, is smaller, lighter and far less sophisticated than the Predators and Reapers that fly over places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. It can carry electro-optical and infrared cameras, fly above 16,000 feet and hover over a battlefield for more than 20 hours, according to its developers, Boeing and Insitu.
The ScanEagle is launched from ships with a "catapult launcher" and lands by catching a rope suspended from a 50-foot tower.
A year ago, Iran proudly displayed the more advanced U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone that it claimed it had hacked into and landed in Iran. It too appeared to be intact and Iran later claimed to have reverse-engineered it and refused to return it. The U.S. denied the drone had been commandeered, saying it malfunctioned and crashed.
The United States complained last month that Iran had shot at another of its drones in international airspace, while Iran said it was in Iranian airspace.
Tension is high in the Gulf as Iran continues building its nuclear program, which the United States and Israel fear will produce a nuclear weapon.
Israel says Iran will enter a "zone of immunity" in the spring or summer, after which point it will not be able to stop a nuclear weapon from being developed. Iran insists its nuclear industry is for civilian purposes only.