After Iranian television broadcast film of a captured CIA RQ-170 stealth drone that landed in Iran a few days ago, the BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, wrote:
If, as was originally thought, the Sentinel had been shot down then there would have been little to put on display but a pile of twisted wreckage.
Instead, what was on show on Iranian TV was an immaculate gleaming white drone that looked straight off the production line.
Which tends to back up the claim by Iran that its forces brought down the drone through electronic warfare, in other words that it electronically hijacked the plane and steered it to the ground.
On Thursday, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force Brig-Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh said “through precise electronic monitoring it was known that this plane had the objective of penetrating the country’s skies for espionage purposes.
“After entering the country’s eastern space the plane was caught in an electronic ambush by the armed forces and it was brought down on the land with minimum damage.”
U.S. officials are now willing to concede what they must have known from day one: that the aircraft Iran captured is indeed an RQ-170.
But even after the release of close-up footage showing the drone in greater detail than it has ever been publicly viewed before, some U.S. officials remained skeptical.
Early Thursday, U.S. officials said, and ABC News reported, that the craft displayed did not appear to be the highly sensitive RQ-170 Sentinel and might be a model, in part because U.S. imagery indicated the Sentinel had not landed intact. Later, however, officials said it was possible that the Iranians had reconstructed the drone for display on television, but that the evidence was “inconclusive.”
An unnamed former senior Pentagon official “with extensive knowledge of unmanned aerial vehicles” also voiced skepticism to an AOL defense blogger:
Here’s what he said in an email after I sent a link to the Iranian footage. “Looks like a fake,” he wrote. “Does not look like the condition of an aircraft that lost control. Also wrong color, and they are not showing the landing gear or bottom of the aircraft… and the welds on the wing joints are hardly stealthy…” In order to avoid setting off radar, welds on stealthy aircraft must be very close to the surface of the structure and extremely smooth.
In both instances we get the same line of reasoning: those images of a captured RQ-170 can’t depict the real aircraft because we know the real one crashed and what we are being shown is intact.
That might sound plausible to a few people — especially those willing to believe anything a US government official says. But for the rest of us (and I’m inclined to think we’re in the majority), the reasoning is more likely to run like this: that thing doesn’t look like a model and it clearly didn’t crash, so any U.S. official who says that the lost RQ-170 crashed, either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s lying.
Most people will remain appropriately agnostic about the technical question of whether it would be feasible for an adversary to intercept and take control of such an aircraft.
As far as the issue of the weld joints on the wings go, it’s reasonable to make a couple of inferences.
Firstly, having recovered the aircraft, the first priority of the Iranians would have been to examine it thoroughly enough to make sure it wouldn’t self-destruct. The wings may well have been removed for that purpose and then later re-attached for public display.
Secondly, the Iranians clearly had an interest in giving U.S. officials and analysts plenty of time to make statements that could later be shown to be false. Given the difficulty that officials and experts have in uttering these simple words — I don’t know — it was predictable that the longer the Iranians kept quiet, the more often an American would say something stupid.
Loren Thompson at the Lexington Institute initially argued that the drone could be of no value to Iran because it was a “pile of wreckage.” He still insists, “whatever the insights that Iranians may glean from the RQ-170 Sentinel, the value of applying that knowledge in their ongoing war with America is likely to be modest.”
Others are less sanguine in their assessment.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” said that while some of the mechanics of the aircraft are well known, some aspects — especially its sensors — would be important to countries like China.
“This is the jewel for them now,” Singer said. “It depends on what was on the plane on this mission, but one sensor it has carried in the past is an AESA radar. This is a very advanced radar that really is a difference maker for our next generation of planes, not just drones, but also manned ones like F-22s and F-35s.”
Maybe Iran won’t learn enough to clone drones for spying on America. But that’s irrelevant, firstly because the primary interest they have is in learning how to defend themselves from the U.S., and secondly, at a time when the U.S. is known to have been operating a fleet of RQ-170s over Iran for years and is suspected of involvement in a series of bombings, assassinations and acts of sabotage targeting Iran’s nuclear program, the evidence of an ongoing war is one being conducted by the United States (and Israel) against Iran — not the other way around.
What surprisingly few Americans still seem able to grasp is that countries like Iran, however malevolent their leadership might be, are much more preoccupied about defending themselves from the most heavily armed and aggressive nation on the planet, than they are in hatching plans to take over the world.
The more often Iran gets called the enemy of America, the more stupid we become.