Did Iran Reverse-Engineer a Secret U.S. Drone?
Tehran’s version of the RQ-170 could be a fake
Three years ago, one of America’s secretive RQ-170 Sentinel drones went down over Iran during a surveillance mission.
The reasons behind the drone crash are unclear. Iran also denied formal requests from Washington for its return, as you would expect. Now we know why.
Iran busted open the swept-wing RQ-170 and made their own. Or maybe not.
On May 11, Iran unveiled its own version of the Sentinel, ostensibly manufactured by reverse engineering. According to Iranian state media, specialists worked on the drone after its recovery near the city of Kashmar.
For two years, Iran made unsubstantiated claims it cracked into the drone’s internal hard drive. But video footage allegedly from the drone released in February 2013 provided some evidence Iran had accessed data stored inside the so-called “Beast of Kandahar.”
“All the memories and computer systems of this plane have been decoded,” IRGC Lt. Cmdr. Gen. Hossein Salami told the state-run Fars News Agency last year. “Some good news will be announced in the near future … about the RQ-170 and the optimizations that our forces have done on the reversed engineered model of this drone.”
It’s not clear whether the Sentinel replica has performed its maiden flight or how this Iranian model differs from the American version. Footage of the drone flying over Iran would demonstrate the drone’s capabilities. But that hasn’t happened.
For now, the RQ-170 in Tehran could be little more than a model. The Iranian military also likes to exaggerate its level of technology, and has presented models—including an outrageously undersized stealth fighter—claiming to be the real thing.
“It seems their fiberglass work has improved a lot,” one source familiar with the RQ-170 told USNI News. “It also seems that if it were a functional copy, versus a detailed replica, it wouldn’t necessarily have the exact same landing gear, tires, etc.”
Iran has recovered—and possibly shot down—three other drones since December 2011. Iranian captured two small RQ-11 Raven drones last year and at least one ScanEagle.
This also isn’t the first reverse-engineered RQ-170. Photographs and reports out of China show cloned versions of the Sentinel.
That a drone landed in Iranian hands is still an intelligence failure—the CIA is widely believed to operate the Sentinel. But one rule of drones is to not fly anything you’re not willing to lose. This is because drones are finicky and crash at higher rates compared to manned aircraft.
Aviation Week also reported in 2011 that the RQ-170’s sensor package was already obsolete. And it’s unclear if Iran managed to copy the drone’s sensors. Even if the Iranian drone can fly, it doesn’t mean it can spy.