The commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards’air arm claims that the Middle Eastern nation is reverse engineering thestealthy Lockheed Martin RQ-170 unmanned aircraft that crashed inside itsborders last December.
“I am giving you four codes so the Americans understandjust how far we have gone in penetrating the drone’s secrets,” he says,speaking on Iranian TV on 22 April.
“In October 2010, the aircraft was sent to Californiafor some technical issues, where it was repaired and after flight tests, it wastaken to Kandahar (in Afghanistan) in November 2010, when a series of technicalproblems still prevailed,” Hajizadeh says. “In December 2010, it wassent to an airport near Los Angeles for repair of its equipment and sensors,and flight tests. The drone was then sent back to Kandahar.”
If that’s true, that could prove to be a damaging loss oftechnology. But it is probably beyond Iran’s means to build a copy of theaircraft, though it has managed to successfully reverse engineer the aged 1960svintage Northrop Grumman F-5 fighter as well as the Bell AH-1 Cobra, amongother projects.
Of course, if Russian or Chinese experts got a hold of theRQ-170 wreckage, they could glean valuable insight into the construction of theaircraft. But the RQ-170 was designed in the late 1990s, so it is datedtechnology.
While it is unlikely Iran could have brought down theRQ-170, the US Defense Department is well aware that future adversaries couldattack the vulnerable data-links that control unmanned aircraft.
In February, US Air Force intelligence chief, Lt Gen LarryJames said the service wanted to make sure it has a solid grip on thetechnology challenges facing unmanned aircraft in a high threat environment –to include secure communications–before embarking on next-generation unmannedaircraft project.
“We want to getour arms around all these technology challenges in an A2/AD [anti-access areadenial] environment — the comm-paths, all those things,” James said at anAviation Week conference. “So before we just jump in into a MQ-Xnext-generation thing, we think we need some time to sort through all thosethings.”
Meanwhile, the US Navy is still working on its UnmannedCarrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft.
One solution to the problem could be increased autonomy forfuture unmanned aircraft. But if those aircraft were to drop weapons, therewould still have to be a man-in-the-loop, otherwise it would raise seriouslegal and ethical questions.
Meanwhile, Washington has not said one way or the other whatcaused the RQ-170 to go down, US analysts and industry officials say the unmannedreconnaissance jet likely malfunctioned. It apparently was not equipped with aself-destruct system and was prominently displayed on Iranian TV after itcrashed–mostly intact from all appearances.
The aircraft was reportedly performing surveillance missionsof various nuclear sites inside Iran at the time of the incident.
Iran, of course, claims to have downed the RQ-170 witheither a cyber or electronic attack, but US sources say that’s extremelyimprobable. But future adversarieswill likely have genuine capabilities to disrupt communications or hack into aUAV’s control systems.