The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has confirmed Iran may have recovered a unmanned air vehicle lost a week ago over western Afghanistan.
Iranian news agencies announced recovering a lightly damaged American UAV, which they identified as the stealthy Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel.
"The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week. The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status," ISAF said in a formal statement.
The statement appears to confirm a lost UAV but excludes pertinent information such as the type of aircraft and its ultimate fate. The US Air Force confirmed that reconnaissance missions are routinely flown in the area, but declined to add additional information, including whether flights take place over Iran.
Subsequent media reports cite anonymous US officials confirming the crash in Iran and capture of an RQ-170.
Iran claims the aircraft was downed by an electronic warfare unit, which interfered with the UAV's data signals and brought the aircraft down mostly intact. Iran periodically claims to down US-operated UAVs, though until last week they have not specified a type of aircraft, and their claims have never gained so much media attention.
The existence of the RQ-170 Sentinel was classified until a series of pictures emerged from Kandahar airfield, the military's largest aviation base in southern Afghanistan. Its existence and operation was subsequently acknowledged by the USAF, but technical and operational details remain tightly controlled. Limiting operations to Afghanistan was considered a highly unlikely prospect, as the US enjoys uncontested air superiority in the country.
Several media sources have since claimed the aircraft was used before and during the special operations raid in Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, and there has been intense but unconfirmed speculation that the aircraft was flown over Iran.
Media reports from US bases in South Korea and Japan describe aircraft operations consistent with the RQ-170.
The aircraft is operated by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, where the Air Force has operated numerous classified aircraft, including the Lockheed F-117 and captured foreign aircraft. The aircraft is also operated by the 432nd Wing at Creech AFB, the primary operating base of the Air Force's mainstay UAVs, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.