Iranian reports claim that U.S. surveillance flights over its territory, using advanced reconnaissance drones such as the RQ-170, targeted nuclear sites, in particular, to gather intelligence on these priority targets.
Flights were also intended to gain intelligence which could clean information regarding the progress Iran had made with its nuclear development.
While some nuclear sites had been heavy fortified with North Korean assistance, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant being a key example located inside a mountain, bombers carrying penetrative munitions could potentially damage these in the event of an attack.
F-14 squadrons protecting these facilities reportedly had some success in deterring reconnaissance flights, but later made some highly unusual reports regarding the nature of American surveillance assets which entered their airspace.
They alleged that drones operated by American intelligence demonstrated the ability to fly at extreme altitudes at hypersonic speeds, and deployed powerful electronic countermeasures including magnetic radar jammers which thwarted the Tomcats’ ability to intercept them.
Expert on Iranian aviation Babak Taghvaee summarised these reports as follows: “The CIA’s intelligence drones displayed astonishing flight characteristics, including an ability to fly outside the atmosphere, attain a maximum cruise speed of Mach 10 and a minimum speed of zero, with the ability to hover over the target… the drones used powerful [electronic countermeasures] that could jam enemy radars using very high levels of magnetic energy.”
According to these reports, an attempt by an F-14 to intercept one such drone over a nuclear facility at Arak in November 2004 saw the Tomcat’s AWG-9 radar disrupted preventing a lock.
Taghvaee further noted that reported incidents involving these hypersonic drones had continued into the 2010s, with Iran alleging that one had downed an F-14 Tomcat attempting to intercept it in January 2012 – the condition of which had been “one of the finest” in its inventory.
The Iranian Air Force today operates over 40 F-14 Tomcat swept wing twin-engine air superiority fighters, platforms acquired from the United States in 1979.