Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, October 22, 2007

  At least 20% of U-2 planes sent to Middle East this year

This statement, made in passing by the Sunday Times defence correspondent Mick Smith, is noteworthy:

Seven American U2 spy planes have passed through RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire this year on their way to Akrotiri in Cyprus or Al-Dhafra in Abu Dhabi, the bases for flights over Iran.

Two observations crowd in:

First, the US is said to have an active fleet of only 35 U-2 planes (nominally headquartered in California). Twenty percent of them, a staggering proportion, were en route this year through England for the Middle East.

Second, Smith’s assertion of fact is apropos of very little in the article. The U-2 information looks to be a salient fact that just needed to see the light of day somehow or other.

The article in which that paragraph is buried requires a closer look. In one sense it mirrors the standard complaints about Iran that one sees in Murdoch papers, except the story is oddly self-deflating.

It focuses on conflicts that the SAS, British special forces, have had with smugglers crossing the Iranian border in the south near Basra. The headline, “SAS raiders enter Iran to kill gunrunners”, seems to be contradicted by the body of the report however (h/t Cernig). It states:

Last week, Bob Ainsworth, the armed forces minister, said the Ministry of Defence was unable to say whether British troops had killed or captured any Iranians in Iraq. The ministry declined to comment, but privately officials insisted British troops never carry out hot pursuit across the border.

Half-way through the article, we would seem to be back to square one. Except that we’re not quite done. Smith rather suddenly shifts the focus away from border firefights:

There have been persistent reports of American special-operations missions inside Iran preparing for a possible attack. But the sources said British troops were solely stopping arms smuggling.

The fighting comes amid an increase in US and British intelligence operations against Iran. Britain’s forces have more than 70 Farsi experts monitoring Iranian communications, and the intelligence is shared with the United States.

Here is where the statement about U-2 flights occurs. Editorially, its inclusion in the story is justifiable (though only barely) as a counter-example of US/UK intelligence sharing.

But note that Smith does not state that the seven U-2 planes have been flying over Iran. He leaves that for the reader to infer, saying only that these are bases “for” flights over Iran. For the U-2 flights over Iraq, as Smith must know, the US doesn’t need the Cypriot and U.A.E. bases. Since 2003 the US has been able to use air fields in Saudia Arabia and Kuwait.

The context of the statement about U-2 planes is important. Smith is portraying the British response to smuggling from Iran as measured, and any conflicts with the Iranian military as straddling the border. Also, these operations are directed simply at blocking the smuggling. (Let’s set aside the question of whether all that is accurate.)

The American special forces, by contrast, are depicted as operating rather deep inside Iran, acting to prepare the ground for a large-scale attack on Iran.

There is a deliberate parallelism with Smith’s treatment of intelligence operations, to which he then turns. The British limit themselves to monitoring signals (presumably from outside Iran). And the US? We’re told it has shipped at least 20% of its U-2 fleet to the region during this year. The implication is clear: The US is regularly violating Iranian air space with U-2 flights, flights that have been stepped up dramatically in recent months by the addition of 7 further U-2 planes.

For several years there have been credible allegations that U-2 planes are spying on Iran, especially after a U-2 crashed in June 2005 at Al-Dhafra air base (U.A.E.).

The United States says the incident occurred as the plane was returning to base after an observation mission over Afghanistan…

Air Force spokesman David Small says U-2 planes are flying daily over Afghanistan and Iraq, in support of American and allied ground forces…

Although the Air Force spokesman did not mention Iran, it's considered certain that the United States is employing the U-2's surveillance capabilities there, as well. Washington suspects Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The Boston Globe added:

The military statement also did not specify the nature of the U-2's classified mission, saying only it was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom…

The U-2 mission will probably remain a mystery. Specialists said yesterday that the plane could have been gathering intelligence for operations in Afghanistan.

It could also have been spying over the eastern border into the mountainous regions of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. Another possibility, they said, was Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west and where the United States suspects a covert nuclear weapons program is underway.

Operation Enduring Freedom ''is not synonymous with Afghanistan," Pike said. ''What they were looking at and what they were flying over could be two very different things."

In fact, the U.A.E. lies more or less directly south of the main areas of nuclear activity in Iran, as well as the porous low-lying border between Iraq and Iran. Afghanistan, however, is on the other side of Iranian air space from the U.A.E.

It’s also possible that the US may be able to fly U-2 missions to Iran out of Georgia and Azerbaijan, alliances the US has cultivated partly for that reason perhaps.

In the last two months, several articles appeared in the corporate media about the continued need for the U-2’s capabilities. Clearly the stories were being orchestrated by the military for purposes of its own.
Jonathan Karl of ABC was surprised to find at long last that he would be allowed to fly on the spy plane.

Meanwhile U.S. News declared that “The legendary U-2 spy planes are busier than ever”. True, but maybe for reasons other than those explored in the bland report.

If in fact the U.S. has now dedicated an additional 20% of its U-2 fleet to overflights of Iran, then we can make better sense of this modest barrage of stories about the normally secretive U-2 program.

It almost goes without saying that to violate Iranian air space could be an act of war; to do so systematically might be intended as a deliberate provocation.

You may recall that one of George Bush’s last acts in the push toward war in Iraq was to demand that Saddam Hussein accept U-2 flights over his country. It was one of the last gasp of the plan to “wrongfoot” Hussein. The Bush administration reacted petulantly when the dictator finally said he was willing to accede to the demand.

Unlike Iraq, however, Iran may have the capability to shoot down a U-2.

crossposed from

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