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.
China is also making significant efforts to develop and deploy its own UAV capabilities. In 2010, China displayed 25 different models of UAV at its biennial Zhuhai airshow. Officials representing China’s ASN Technology Group – one of several major UAV producers – claimed that the People’s Liberation Army is already operating two drones. The Institute for International Strategic Studies reported in its Military Balance 2010 that China has deployed several types of UAV for both “combat and reconnaissance” purposes, though it makes no specific mention of armed drones.
Even if China hasn’t yet fielded an armed UAV, the number of models in advanced stages of development makes it clear that this capability will be part of its air power arsenal in the near future. The deployment of UAV systems supports the Chinese military’s doctrinal imperative of increasing “informationization” to improve situational awareness and adds another layer of remote targeting and strike capability which can enhance China’s ability to deny military access on its periphery.
Access to the RQ-170 would give Chinese engineers the opportunity to study the drone’s sensor systems, control and communication systems, and the materials and design elements that make it stealthy. Access to the drone might further allow engineers to understand how its subsystems are fused together and how it operates as an integrated whole. Even if the Chinese aerospace industry can’t use reverse engineering to produce an indigenous equivalent of the RQ-170, Chinese engineers could probably learn enough from the RQ-170 to develop improved countermeasures and defenses against it and similar systems. China is already devoting considerable attention to improving its air defenses and developing means to defeat U.S. stealth technology, and so access to the RQ-170 would facilitate Chinese efforts to understand how advanced U.S. UAVs operate and to devise new ways to exploit their operational weaknesses.
It’s unclear whether Iranian air defenses or countermeasures played a role in downing the RQ-170. A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that there was a “95 percent chance” that the drone crashed due to technical malfunction.In later statements, U.S. officials flatly denied Iranian claims that a sophisticated cyber attack brought down the RQ-170, but have been less definitive about whether Iran might have used other means like GPS jamming to interfere with the drone’s flight.
But even if the loss of the RQ-170 over Iran was due to a technical malfunction, Chinese access to the drone may eventually help produce countermeasures and improved air defenses that make it harder for the United States to operate stealthy UAVs over hostile territory. Iran would be a prime customer for such systems; a Chinese commitment to sell UAVs and countermeasures might be part of Iran’s price tag for access to the RQ-170.
Joshua Wiseman is a Research Analyst at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, part of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.