I have been following with interest the developing story of how Iran has reportedly managed to capture some of the U.S.’s most sensitive surveillance technology, and I still have to shake my head at what a waste it was.
In 2009, the aviation world was abuzz over grainy pictures of a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) spotted on the runway at a U.S. airbase in Afghanistan. Dubbed “The Beast of Kandahar,” the mysterious aircraft—which looked like a miniature B-2 stealth bomber—spurred speculation as to its purpose and capabilities. As more information slowly leaked out, the Air Force confirmed that the shadowy drone was actually the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, and among its alleged achievements was the conducting of aerial observations on Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan before the Seal team operation that killed him. Now it seems that all that secrecy was in vain as the jet-powered RQ-170 is poised to be rendered bare as a plucked chicken. Iran, which seems to have bagged one, is gleefully displaying its trophy to the world. As it continues to investigate and perhaps dissect the RQ-170 it somehow seemingly disabled and forced down during a reconnaissance flight over its territory, propaganda photos and video released from Iran show the bat-winged robotic craft looking intact but quite forlorn lying on what looks like a banquet table surrounded by anti-American posters (apparently they haven’t figured out how to deploy the landing gear yet).
According to several reports, Iran claims it was able to hack into and override the UAV’s guidance system and trick the craft into landing in Iran, thus explaining the apparent lack of damage. If so, the recovered reconnaissance drone becomes just the latest treasure chest of American military technology to be available for view to the highest bidder among America’s rivals. In addition to its advanced surveillance equipment, the Sentinel is also said to be clad in the latest stealth coatings aimed at cloaking its operations.
During the aforementioned Bin Laden raid, a heavily modified “low observable” Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter crashed and had to be destroyed by U.S. forces as they departed the scene. The wreckage, recovered by Pakistani authorities incensed that the raid had been carried out unannounced under their noses, was returned to the U.S. several weeks later, most likely after it had been thoroughly picked over by other countries.
The Iran situation reminds me of another time the U.S. suffered a black eye: the U-2 incident of 1960 in which a CIA spy plane (which, ironically enough, took off from Pakistan) was shot down by the Soviets over Mother Russia. The pilot failed to activate the aircraft’s self-destruct system before he ejected, and as a result the Soviets were able to recover it largely intact, quickly ringing false any U.S. assertions that the mission was a weather surveillance flight that strayed off course. The Russians kept the top-secret U-2 and its surveillance equipment but two years later swapped pilot Francis Gary Powers for one of their own spies, captured earlier by the U.S.
That probably won’t happen in this case. Despite requests from President Obama to return the drone (which were met with derision from Tehran), unless/until Iran synthesizes its newly gained technology, builds UAVs of its own and sends them winging over Washington, we won’t have anything to capture and trade with them.