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Iran's captured RQ-170: How bad is the damage?

Dec. 9, 2011 - 10:09AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 9, 2011 - 10:09AM  |  
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Iranian state TV broadcast footage Dec. 8 claiming to show a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel high-altitude reconnaissance drone.
Iranian state TV broadcast footage Dec. 8 claiming to show a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel high-altitude reconnaissance drone. (AFP Photo / Iranian TV)
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No one in the U.S. government has officially confirmed that Iran has captured a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel UAV. But just an hour after Iranian state television aired images purporting to show off its prize, the Air Force's top uniformed officer raised the specter of a foreign power copying the stealthy jet's top-secret technology.

"There is the potential for reverse engineering, clearly," said Air Force Chief Gen. Norton Schwartz. "Ideally, one would want to maintain the American advantage. That certainly is in our minds."

If the jet "comes into the possession of a sophisticated adversary," there's not much the U.S. could do about it, Schwartz said Thursday during a taping of "http://www.defensenewstv.com/">This Week in Defense News."

The Iranian broadcast showed apparent footage of a mostly intact RQ-170 put on public display. While the craft showed some damage, it seemed to be in remarkably good shape.

One source said the aircraft in the footage was definitely the Sentinel, a subsonic, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft built by Lockheed Martin. The aircraft appeared to have sustained damage consistent with a wheels-up landing, he said.

The Associated Press quoted a former U.S. official as saying the Pentagon was using the aircraft to keep watch on Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons facilities.

However, the Pentagon had no official comment on the Iranian video footage.

"We're not going to add to what we said over the weekend," said George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

How Damaging?

Analysts were split over just how damaging the loss of the Sentinel will be.

Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., compared it to the Soviet shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane, a tactical and strategic disaster for the U.S.

The capture of the Sentinel calls into question the viability of the very concept of stealthy unmanned aircraft penetrating enemy airspace, Goure said.

"It kind of undermines the whole argument for replacing manned aircraft with unmanned systems," he said. "Unless you want to use it as a one-way missile."

The capture of a mostly intact RQ-170 by a hostile power like Iran is "the biggest Christmas present to our enemies in probably a decade, at least," Goure said

The captured aircraft will help adversaries copy U.S. stealth design techniques, coating materials, engine technology, and UAV command-and-control systems, he said. It will also help them develop countermeasures against stealthy U.S. aircraft.

Moreover, he said, "Everybody now will get an understanding of our state-of-the-art intelligence collection capabilities."

Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia was more measured in his response.

"It's not the end of the world," Aboulafia said.

The Iranians will undoubtedly share the technology or even the crashed aircraft with other nations, he said — and Iranian news site Nasim reported Dec. 8 that Russian and Chinese experts were already on their way to visit. But the manufacturing know-how to build such aircraft can't be duplicated from a captured machine, he said.

Moreover, even if the coatings were compromised and much of the shaping of a stealth airframe article is already public domain, Aboulafia said, "There is so much more to stealth than the airframe."

Most of the mission systems on the captured plane are probably useless to an adversary, he said.

"From a secrecy standpoint, it's like dropping a Ferrari into an ox-cart technology culture," Aboulafia said. "But I'm sure they can sell it to someone who can get some kind of information out of it. But the mission systems are likely to be too encrypted to be of use to anyone."

Still, reverse engineering is inevitable, he said: "Please insert Ethernet cable and download operating instructions here."

There are few examples of countries that gained a strategic edge simply by capturing an enemy platform. Soon after World War II, the Soviet Union jump-started its jet-engine program by copying Western technology, but lacking the deep understanding provided by bootstrap developments, never developed an innovative aerospace industry that could go toe-to-toe with the West.

"It doesn't work like that," Aboulafia said. "But it wouldn't be good."

How'd It Go Down?

Still unknown is how Iran captured the stealthy aircraft in the first place. Tehran claims to have used cyberwarfare to hack the drone's systems.

Schwartz declined to say whether he believed the RQ-170 was brought down by electronic means.

Goure said the largely intact airframe ruled out the possibility of an engine or navigational malfunction.

"Either this was a cyber/electronic warfare attack system that brought the system down or it was a glitch in the command-and-control system," he said.

If it was a malfunction, it was a spectacular one. Not only did the aircraft lose its command link, it also failed to return to base as it was designed to do in such an eventuality, Goure said.

Aboulafia pronounced himself flummoxed that the RQ-170 was not programmed to self-destruct.

"I would really hope they'd have a kill switch. Is the world really that poorly run?" he said.

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