Could the capture of this aircraft spell the end of US control over advanced surveillance technology?
Iran’s military has begun building a copy of a top-secret U.S. surveillance drone captured last year after breaking the software encryption, Iranian media reported yesterday.
The drone in question — an RQ-170 Sentinel — has been widely used since 2010 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It played a role in the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed last year, analysts say.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards aerospace division, said engineers were in the final stages of decoding data from the classified aircraft, which came down virtually intact in December near the Afghan border, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported, stating also that Iran had reverse-engineered the aircraft and has begun using that knowledge to build a copy of the drone.
Iran said it downed the unmanned aircraft “electronically”, but Washington claims it simply malfuntioned and that the drone’s onboard security systems mean Iran is unlikely to get valuable information from the Lockheed Martin Corporation drone.
“The Americans should be aware to what extent we have infiltrated the plane,” Fars news agency quoted Hajizadeh as saying. “Our experts have full understanding of its components and programs.”
“There is almost no part hidden to us in this aircraft,” Hajizadeh said. “We recovered part of the data that had been erased. There were many codes and characters. But we deciphered them by the grace of God.”
Among the drone’s past missions, he said, was surveillance of the compound in northwest Pakistan in which bin Laden allegedly lived and was killed. Hajizadeh claimed the drone flew over bin Laden’s compound two weeks before the al-Qaida leader was killed there in May 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Hajizadeh also listed a litany of tests and maintenance that the drone had undergone, all of which he said had been recorded in the aircraft’s memory. According to Hajizadeh, the drone was taken to California on Oct. 16, 2010 for “technical work” and then to Kandahar, Afghanistan on Nov. 18, 2010. He said it carried out flights from Afghanistan but ran into some problems that U.S. experts were unable to fix. Then the drone was taken to Los Angeles in December 2010 where the aircraft’s sensors underwent testing.
“If we had not achieved access to software and hardware of this aircraft, we would be unable to get these details. Our experts are fully dominant over sections and programs of this plane,” Hajizadeh said
The loss of the plane sparked some concerns that sophisticated technology could fall into the hands of countries developing their own unmanned planes.
One area where there is concern is whether Iran or other states could 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 feet in the air.
How much data there is on the drone is another question. 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.
Iran’s military regular announces defense and engineering developments, but some analysts are sceptical as to how reliable those reports are.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said on Fox News Sunday that he views the reports with skepticism.
“There is a history here of Iranian bluster, particularly, now when they are on the defensive because of the economic sanctions against them,” Lieberman said. “Look, it was not good for the U.S. when the drone went down in Iran and not good when the Iranians grabbed it. I don’t have confidence at this point that they are really able to make a copy of it.”
An Iranian defense official said recently that Tehran has received numerous requests for information on the craft and that China and Russia have shown most interest. (Sources: Reuters, AP, Yahoo)