A few months ago I mentioned how Iran was trying to join the game of drones. The engineers of the Islamic Republic were attempting to build their own unmanned aircraft, possibly with some technical cannibalisation of an American RQ-170 Sentinel that crashed there in December 2011.
Well this week they have unveiled their masterpiece, which contrary to my expectations, has been named something fairly mundane: the Witness-129. They claim it has a range of 2,000 km and is capable of carrying a payload of bombs and missiles.
The two thousand click range technically means the drone could just about get to Israel and back to launch a payload. Of course, Iranian forces aren’t necessarily known for their concern over exit plans and casualty evacuation, so the operating radius expands as far as Athens, Cairo or western India.
Cue media panic and discussion about the RQ-170 Sentinel’s stealth capabilities and we trade up to invisible Iranian drones with nuclear warheads.
Except that the Witness looks nothing like the Sentinel. Despite the Iranian’s wanting everybody to think they have back-engineered the American drone, their efforts more resemble models like the Predator or Reaper, albeit with a small jet turbine. The big wingspan and the spindly construction make me think that this is no high-speed stealth machine. Much more of a long-loiter surveillance aircraft for border and maritime duties.
In other words, the chances of the Iranian drone penetrating someone’s airspace and surviving more than a few minutes are pretty remote. It can’t take evasive action either, since when out of ground control range it must follow a series of pre-determined navigation points. To attack Tel Aviv the Witness would need to first fly over some combination of Iraq, Jordan and Syria, needing a blind eye from them before even entering the welcoming skies of Israel.
The main threat that this robot plane would pose is to shipping in the Straits of Hormuz. Armed with the right missile it could be used to target merchant vessels or smaller military ships. Again though, it’s hard to see that anyone would let it get close enough to do the job.
It’s all much ado about nothing. Many countries operate unmanned aircraft, and Iran having them is no great escalation.
And whilst the Witness was being witnessed at home, my favourite orator was rubbing shoulders with power-brokers like Julia Gillard at the UN this week. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got to address the General Assembly and present his own flower power vision of how we should all just get along. He began by claiming Iran was the birthplace of pretty much everything:
“Coming from Iran, the land of glory and beauty, the land of knowledge, culture, wisdom and morality, the cradle of philosophy and mysticism, the land of compassion and light, the land of scientists, scholars, philosophers, masters of literature, and writers…I represent a great and proud nation that is a founder of the human civilization and an inheritor of the respected universal values. I represent a conscious nation which is dedicated to the cause of freedom, peace and compassion…”
The speech was heavy on religious overtones, but the key message he had was that the UN, as it stands, sucks. It is inefficient and true power lies in the hands of the permanent Security Council members and their veto right. This, according to Ahmadinejad, makes it impossible for other nations, particularly the non-aligned ones, to have any hope of justice or representation.
And he’s not wrong there.