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Iran and the Sentinel Drone: The Mouse Roars

By James Kitfield

National Journal

(Dec. 9) -  Two senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers stand next to what is claimed to be a captured U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone (AP Photo/Sepahnews). (Dec. 9) - Two senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers stand next to what is claimed to be a captured U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone (AP Photo/Sepahnews).

WASHINGTON -- In the never-ending game of cat-and-mouse that is the secret arms race between offensive stealth systems and defensive radars, the mouse just captured a bit of catnip. That’s the implicit message behind video released on Thursday by Iranian state television purporting to show a surprisingly intact RQ-170 Sentinel drone that U.S. officials confirm went missing earlier this week. Iranian officials have promised to reverse engineer the stealthy drone, which carries advanced surveillance, communications, and radar systems, and was almost certainly spying on Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons complex. Iranian officers shown inspecting the drone, though, looked as if they would first have to find the “on” switch (see GSN, Dec. 6).

“From the video it looks like Iran has secured an intact RQ-170 drone, and that is a significant blow to U.S. intelligence-gathering because Iran now has a clearer idea of how we are spying on them, but they lack the capability to reverse engineer the drone to produce a functioning aircraft of their own,” said Loren Thompson, a defense and aerospace expert with the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting firm in Virginia. The Iranians are also unlikely to be able to translate the knowledge gained from the drone, he said, into effective air defenses against stealthy aircraft. “The bigger concern is that the Chinese and Russians will no doubt soon be crawling all over the drone themselves,” said Thompson. “But they already have a pretty good understanding of stealth technology, and they have been incorporating it into their own military aircraft for some time.”

There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the apparent loss of the secret drone, dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” after one was photographed on a flight line in Afghanistan in 2009. How did U.S. operators lose control of the robotic aircraft? Why didn't it automatically fly back to base when links with controllers were severed, as most such drones are reportedly programmed to do? Why was an onboard self-destruct system not activated? Or was it, but malfunctioned?

What is known about the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, which was first fielded in 2007, convinces a number of experts that its capture by the Iranians represents an embarrassing tactical setback for the U.S. intelligence community, rather than a crisis of strategic proportions. Probably the most sensitive technology on the aircraft, for instance, is embedded in heavily encrypted software that probably has been rendered inoperative. The drone’s chief surveillance technology is a single-channel, full-motion video system that has already been eclipsed by more sophisticated wide-area surveillance systems such as the Air Force’s “Gorgon Stare,” which has been installed in Reaper drones since last year. In terms of stealth capabilities, the bat-wing-shaped Sentinel closely resembles the B-2 stealth bomber, which is 1980s-vintage stealth technology.

“I don’t want to downplay the loss of the RQ-170 because for the United States this is not a happy occurrence, but it’s not really that sophisticated of an aircraft,” said David Fulghum, a military aircraft analyst at Aviation Week. “The Iranians can try and reverse engineer the drone but they can’t replicate it, and while the Chinese and Russians could, by the time they could field an aircraft based on the design it would be at least a generation or two behind state-of-the-art stealth aircraft.”

Of course, the recent loss of the RQ-170 is not the first time that U.S. stealth technology has fallen into the wrong hands. A stealth helicopter crash-landed in Pakistan during the Special Forces raid on Osama bin Laden’s complex earlier this year, for instance, and an F-117 stealth bomber was downed in the Balkans in 1999 and captured by Serbian forces. In both instances, U.S. officials assumed that their qualitative edge in stealth technology had been at least partially compromised.

“One of the rules of warfare is that eventually the other side is going to get hold of your weapons, and we can assume by the loss of the helicopter and apparently the drone that China and Russia are going to get a look at their stealth characteristics,” said Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director for analysis and production at the CIA. “That’s a long way from being able to manufacture their own such stealth systems, however, and both countries already understand the basic physics of stealth anyway. So the loss of a stealth drone is unfortunate, but I don’t see it as a major crisis. Rather, I think it was inevitable.”

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