A big danger with having sophisticated military systems is that you run the risk of losing them if you use them.
That appears to be the case with the U.S. Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel, the remotely operated reconnaissance aircraft that was recently lost over Iran. The stealthy aircraft, built by Lockheed Martin, entered service about a decade ago and has seen duty over hot spots worldwide since.
The United States has been using manned and unmanned aircraft for this mission for decades; the RQ-170 is only the latest that allows the United States to see into denied airspace.
The loss of any advanced aircraft poses special risks because it exposes its materials and technologies to enemy scientists and engineers. Now that the Iranians have the Sentinel - especially since it appears to have come into their possession largely intact - it's only a matter of time before China, North Korea and others learn about the UAV's stealth coatings, airframe structures and materials, sensors and electronic components, flight controls and more.
The Air Force is trying to learn as much as possible from the loss, such as why the plane lost signal and how it came to be recovered in one piece.
But more important, it must learn how to guard against such a dangerous loss of technology in the future. Such aircraft must be fitted with physical and electronic self-destruct mechanisms that will obliterate anything of interest as soon as it falls into enemy hands.
Last, the inherent value of having the kind of technology that makes an RQ-170 possible is a critical U.S. advantage in warfare. As defense budgets decline, continuing robust investment in advanced stealth, sensor and reconnaissance technologies is crucial to maintaining America's strategic and tactical advantages.