U.S. officials thought about deploying Special Forces to recapture or demolish components of an RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone that went down in eastern Iran last week. “No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident,” an official told The Wall Street Journal on condition of anonymity. If detected, the commando raid might have been considered an “act of war” by Tehran, the official added.
The circumstances of the bat-shaped CIA-operated RQ-170’s tumble are slowly becoming clearer. Iran’s state media claimed that an “electronic-warfare” unit, possibly a Russian-supplied “Avtobaza” signal-jammer, interrupted the stealthy drone’s command signal and caused it to crash “with little damage.”
U.S. sources countered that claim, saying the RQ-170 likely suffered some kind of serious breakdown while cruising at high altitude. There’s no evidence the crash can be attributed to “hostile activity of any kind,” according to Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
“This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth,” Loren Thompson, a military consultant, told the AP. “It's likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces.”
It’s now clear that’s not true. Images broadcast on Iranian state TV on Thursday showed the RQ-170 intact, with no outward signs of its mishap. That rules out a crash from high altitude.
Intelligence agents from every U.S. rival have likely rushed to inspect the Lockheed Martin-built Sentinel. “The flights from Moscow and Beijing to Tehran were probably quite full the last few days,” P. W. Singer, from the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times.
The RQ-170 almost certainly comes equipped with a self-destruct device. After all, even the older Global Hawk spy drone is rigged to blow itself up in an emergency. We know this because an Air Force operator accidentally triggered a Global Hawk’s self-destruct during a test flight back in 1999. The malfunction that severed whatever signal ground-based operators were using to track the Sentinel might also have disabled the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle's self-destruct.
It’s debatable how much the Iranians can learn from the captured robot. “There is nothing particularly unique about this [drone] configuration,” John Pike, from Globalsecurity.org, told the AP. The Sentinel’s stealth qualities are mostly a function of its shape, which is apparent from photos freely available on the Internet.
And good luck reverse-engineering the RQ-170 in order to copy its specific design, said Dennis Gormley, a drone expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “Unless somebody put the engineering drawings in the UAV, it won’t be easy,” Gormley told The New York Times. “In any complex piece of aviation equipment, you have to replicate the tolerances precisely.”
But the Sentinel’s real secrets are in its sensors, not its airframe – and the most important aspect of the sensors is their software. That, Thompson said, is encrypted. Whatever the Iranians stand to learn from the downed stealth drone, in whatever shape it’s in, clearly isn’t worth starting a war over.