Belmont Club

Who Said 'No' to Destroying the RQ-170?

The Christian Science Monitor describes the choices facing US decision-makers after the RQ-170 drone was lost in Iran. “US officials considered launching an airstrike to destroy the advanced unmanned spy aircraft or sending in a special operations team to blow up or perhaps retrieve the super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel drone.”

“But in the end, trying to destroy or retrieve the RQ-170 inside Iran was ruled out. … No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident,” a US official told The Wall Street Journal. An assault team entering the country “could be accused of an act of war” by the Iranian government, the official said.

An act of war is a terrible thing; like attacking another country’s embassy or dispatching personnel to kill uniformed military personnel in another country or plotting to kill foreign diplomats in the capital city of a Third Country.  It is not a step that whoever was in the decision process would have made lightly.

But the question remains, who was the “no one” who warmed up to the option of recovering or destroying the RQ-170 because it would provoke Iran? The Wall Street Journal provides an indirect clue as to who it might be.

The officials considered various options for retrieving the wreckage of the RQ-170 drone.

Under one plan, a team would be sent to retrieve the aircraft. U.S. officials considered both sending in a team of American commandos based in Afghanistan as well as using allied agents inside Iran to hunt down the downed aircraft.

Another option would have had a team sneak in to blow up the remaining pieces of the drone. A third option would have been to destroy the wreckage with an airstrike.

However, the officials worried that any option for retrieving or destroying the drone would have risked discovery by Iran.

“No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident,” the U.S. official said.

If an assault team entered the country to recover or destroy the drone, the official said, the U.S. “could be accused of an act of war” by the Iranian government.

Some officials argued in private meetings that because the drone crashed in a remote part of eastern Iran, it might never be discovered, and therefore, leaving the remains where they were could be the safest option.

We can guess at least this much:  it is apparent that a considerable amount of time elapsed between the moment the drone was down to the moment it was discovered by the Iranians. Time enough for “private meetings”. Time enough for three action options to put plans to destroy or retrieve the RQ-170 together. Time, probably on the scale of at least several hours, perhaps even days for whoever the impersonal pronoun refers to, to make or not make a go or no-go decision.

The question is: to whom would these options be presented? The highest authority surely; for only the “the ultimate lawful source of military orders” could authorize — and therefore reject an incursion into another country.

The NCA consists only of the President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Commanders of the Unified and Specified Commands.

Someone along that line someone said “no” to destroying the RQ-170. Someone who, had the decision been to retrieve it, and had it been successfully retrieved, might well be boasting of the success. But the attempt was not made and the rest is history. It may well have been the correct decision. It might just as well have been a monumental boo-boo. But it seems abundantly clearly that the buck stopped somewhere; now if only we knew where.

Update: Fox says it was President Obama. Hat tip: Jaybird

With early knowledge that the aircraft had likely remained intact, the senior U.S. official also told Fox News that President Obama was presented with three separate options for retrieving or destroying the drone. The president ultimately decided not to proceed with any of the plans because it could have been seen as an act of war, the official told Fox News.


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