The loss of a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone over eastern Iran has led to speculation that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will eventually find its way into Chinese hands. Access to the drone could allow China to use reverse engineering to incorporate key technologies into its own indigenous aerospace systems and to develop countermeasures that would make it harder for U.S. stealth UAVs and aircraft to operate near China. Iran has significant political, military, and financial incentives to provide such access, reversing the usual flow of technology from China to Iran.
Despite the claims of some Iranian officials, Iran lacks the technical capacity to exploit and duplicate the advanced technologies in the RQ-170 on its own. Providing access to China could therefore generate benefits in terms of expanded Iranian access to Chinese military technologies, potential future access to UAV countermeasures, and Chinese diplomatic support in Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.
A robust arms sales relationship has existed between China and Iran since the early 1980s. China has supplied Iran with military hardware including fighter aircraft (F-7), fast-attack patrol vessels, anti-ship cruise missiles, and guidance technologies for use in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The dollar amount of official arms transfers in the decade 2000-2010 decreased from previous decades, but China continues to help Iran develop critical weapons programs. According to Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News agency, both Chinese and Russian officials have already made requests to inspect the RQ-170.
A recent National Defense University study by Phillip Saunders and myself looked at the history of China’s military aviation industry and gave numerous examples of how access to foreign aircraft designs and reverse engineering of components has helped China expand its aerospace technology capacity. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, China used reverse engineering to fill technical gaps and improve upon older Soviet designs. Access to restricted U.S. aircraft and aerospace technologies gained through third parties has also provided opportunities to apply reverse engineering. One commonly cited example is Chinese access to the F-16 gained through its close relationship with Pakistan. It’s difficult to determine the exact level of access China enjoyed, but open source references claim that Chinese technical personnel visiting Pakistan in the early 1980s were given the opportunity to examine the F-16 in detail (I recommend Wei Chen Lee’s excellent article “The Birth of a Salesman: China as an Arms Supplier”). Islamabad may have also transferred completed subsystems to China and provided access to the design and maintenance blueprints necessary to service the aircraft.
The Chinese military aviation industry’s technology base and ability to produce sophisticated aerospace systems has expanded rapidly over the past two decades, greatly improving its ability to exploit and potentially replicate technologies used in the RQ-170 drone. For example, China’s J-10 multi-role fighter incorporates metal alloys and composite materials for high strength and low weight. China developed the fourth generation J-11B fighter through a combination of coproduction and reverse engineering the Russian Su-27, with a particular focus on indigenizing subsystems. The unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter prototype, which made its first test flight in January, demonstrates China’s ability to incorporate stealth technology in new aircraft designs.