Tehran’s capture of a largely intact, top secret US drone, which it displayed on state television, not only lays bare the US’ surveillance program over Iran, but it also puts sensitive, advanced technology in hostile hands.
A former US official confirmed to that the beige-colored drone featured in the more than two-minute video aired on Thursday was indeed an RQ-170 Sentinel that is used for surveillance of Tehran’s nuclear facilities. The US military said it lost control of a drone earlier this week.
Iranian officials quickly claimed their military forces had downed the Sentinel with an electronic attack. However, US officials on Thursday flatly rejected the claim that any cyber or other electronic-related activity was responsible for the loss of the drone.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone mission is classified.
The video, which showed Iranian officials examining the drone, provided the first real evidence of the Sentinel’s capture. More important, it revealed the aircraft to be nearly in one piece.
That alone confirmed experts’ contention that the classified aircraft can be programmed to land safely if its communications link is lost.
Robotics expert Peter Singer, who has written about the use of drones in war, said the Sentinel is programmed to circle in the air or land if its communications link is lost. Until the video came out, US officials and other experts were suggesting the drone may have crashed, leaving Iran with only scattered pieces.
Pentagon officials on Thursday refused to comment on the drone, saying they do not talk about classified surveillance programs.
However, the episode could be a serious setback for what has been an escalating surveillance program, aimed largely at Iran’s nuclear facilities, that has gone on for years from a US air base in Afghanistan and other bases in the region.
It gives the Iranians the opportunity to share or sell the drone to others, such as the Chinese and Russians, who might be better able to exploit any technological information gleaned from examining it.
US officials are concerned that others may be able to reverse--engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint or the aircraft’s sophisticated optics technology that allows operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of meters in the air.
Adversaries also might be able to hack into the drone’s database, although it is not clear whether they would be able to recover any data. Some surveillance technologies allow video to stream through to operators on the ground, but do not store much collected data. If they do, it is encrypted.
Singer 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.”
While it’s not news that Washington spies on Iran, or that Iran knows it, the incident comes at a particularly sensitive time as the US and other nations push for stronger sanctions against Tehran to stifle its nuclear ambitions.