Interview with Michael Elleman and John Pike
Iran claims it is reproducing U.S. stealth technology less than five months after capturing an RQ-170 Sentinel drone, the most advanced unmanned surveillance aircraft. On April 22, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh told Iranian state television, “Our experts are fully dominant over sections and programs of this plane."
Hajizadeh also offered details of the drone’s past activities “to let the Americans know how deep we could penetrate into [the technology of] this drone," Iran’s Fars news agency reported. He even claimed the decoded data proved that this particular drone had been used to help track movements inside Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan. “Had we not accessed the plane’s softwares and hard disks, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve these facts,” said Hajizadeh, who is commander of the Revolutionary GuardsAir Force.
The RQ-170 is an unmanned aircraft with a 65-foot wingspan, stealth technology and a single jet engine. Iran captured the drone on Dec. 2, 2011, although the United States has never confirmed whether the unmanned aircraft malfunctioned or Iran penetrated its technology and brought it down. U.S. officials did confirm that the drone operated out of neighboring Afghanistan, but did not comment publicly on widespread speculation that it was used to spy on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Two U.S. defense experts—Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Bahrain and John Pike of globalsecurity.org based in Washington DC—assessed different aspects of Iran’s claims.
Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies
How difficult would it be for Iran to replicate the RQ-170 drone?
It would be taking a piece of cake and replicating the recipe or being able to determine what the recipe was.
What are the most sensitive technologies?
There are several elements to a stealth drone or aircraft. One issue is the geometry or shape of the object—trying to create an object that has no reflecting surfaces. The Iranians could copy the geometry or shape of the object.
The other issue is the material that coats the stealth aircraft or drone. Those materials are very complex electromagnetic properties. When they receive electromagnetic energy from radar, they absorb the energy received instead of reflecting it. Because of that, the materials that they use to coat it are very unique. They try to reduce the signature to nothing.
The Iranians may be able to tell what the constituent ingredients or ferro-magnetic materials are. But they won’t be able to determine the process by which they were made, which is as important as the materials themselves. It has to with the way everything is aligned structurally.
What aspects concern the United States the most?
The military and the intelligence agencies would be concerned that the Iranians can start testing the materials to see how they reflect radar energies. They can do experiments on the drone and may be able to update their radars to better detect future stealth drones. It gives them a leg up to better understand what they’re up against.
The other issue of concern is that the Iranians get to see what the sensors are – the cameras, the data links, how they communicate back to a satellite, whether the sensors are regular cameras or infrared. The sensors may have a sampling capability; they could sample the air to test what the Iranians are doing.
The Iranians now might have an ability to better screen or camouflage whatever facilities they are trying to hide. That’s the intelligence loss. Now they have a better idea of what we’re looking for and how we’re looking.
John Pike of Globalsecurity.org
Iran claims to have replicated the technology from the RQ-170 Sentinel Drone. How credible is this given the short 4-month timeframe from when Iran came to possess it?
The Iranians are notorious braggarts. It is plausible that they could have replicated the general structure of the airframe [or structure]. It is much less plausible that they could have gotten much beyond that.
The drone’s primary mission is to conduct surveillance. How will its loss impact the U.S. ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program?
It will have no impact, since the program of which it was a part surely continues.
How long would it take Iran realistically to reproduce a drone?
To reproduce the airframe would only take months. To replicate the whole thing [stealth, sensors, computers, etc], they would probably still be working on it when the Hidden Imam returns from Occultation.
What new military capabilities does this drone provide to Iran?
Without a better understanding of the range and endurance of the RQ-170, it would be hard to say. But it was built to support a US persistent surveillance requirement that has no immediate Iranian counterpart. The RQ-170 develops target signature intelligence to support counter-personnel attacks, to include attacks from other UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicle]. The United States conducts such operations. Iran does not.
How does this event affect Iranian capability to impact U.S. interests?
Russia and China have both expressed interest in the drone’s technology. What is the likelihood they may have assisted Iran in its technological exploitation?
One assumes that both countries wanted to get a look-see, and that Iran obliged once the price was right. I don't think this will change the larger scheme of things.
Ted Wynne works for the Center for Conflict Management at the U. S. Institute of Peace.