8 March 2012
Iran is planning to build drones for the Venezuelan military. Just so you know, it sounds worse than it is.
That’s according to Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of U.S. forces in South America. According to Fraser, who spoke to reporters in Washington on Wednesday, the drones are to be manufactured in Venezuela with Iranian help and will likely be used for “internal defense.” The exact kind of drones isn’t clear. But the robots are probably too small to be armed.
The ScanEagle is a small, unarmed, catapult-launched U.S. spy drone used by special operations forces. If Iran’s design for the drone’s speed and range are comparable, it’s highly, highly unlikely the flimsy robot could reach Miami from Venezuela to snap some pictures or take some video. Even allowing for the theoretical possibility that an aircraft built to loiter could max out its engine, top speeds and fuel supply for the 1,200-mile trip, it couldn’t go north of Florida, and it definitely couldn’t make it home.
In other words, don’t expect the skies above Sheboygan to fill up with Iranian killing machines under the order of Hugo Chavez. Assuming Venezuela could get them off the ground: Fraser said a fire recently broke out at the drone’s manufacturing plant, delaying its production. But think of it this way: an actual Iranian-Venezuelan drone factory exists, representing an upgrade in industrial cooperation from earlier joint projects like dairy plants and a tractor factory.
More seriously, U.S. officials also don’t know if technology acquired from a CIA-operated drone that crashed in Iran last year has made it into the design. Routine drone design characteristics, like engines, are easy to duplicate, but the advanced sensors and other secret gear on the RQ-170 “Beast of Kandahar” are a different matter. The Iranians may not know how to even use the software or get past potential (classified) anti-tamper measures.
It’s also not likely to change the balance of Latin American drone power. Brazil has spent more than $350 million on advanced Israeli-made drones for surveillance operations above the Amazon rainforest and along Brazil’s long, porous borders. Israel has also prohibited Brazil, which depends on its relationship with Israeli firms for their drone designs, from selling the drones to Chavez.
Whatever their specifications, the new drones are tailor made to sew panic in Congress and the blogosphere about the Venezuela-Iran Legion of Doom. In February, a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee raised concerns about “the threat to U.S. national security posed by Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities in our own Western Hemisphere,” said committee chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. The committee pointed to media reports suggesting increased activity in Latin America by Hezbollah and the Iranian Qods Force.
The Obama administration is rolling its eyes. “People talk about Hezbollah. They talk about Iranian support for weapons and the rest. I guarantee you, Iran will not be able to pose a hemispheric threat to the United States,” Vice President Joe Biden, who is spending the week in Mexico and Honduras, said on Wednesday. Last May, the administration also denied (now discredited) reports Iran was building a long-range missile base in Venezuela.
But it is a sign that the Venezuelan military is increasing its ties to Iran. Before, the extent of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation was primarily limited to rhetorical attacks on the U.S. and poorly-managed joint economic projects. ”They are working to build diplomatic relations [and] international support to counter the sanctions,” Fraser said.
Joint military projects are an important feature of such
relationships. But surveillance drones are still a military project.
It’s a bit riskier than just another tractor factory.