Yesterday, videos and pictures appeared online purporting to depict the U.S. Air Force RQ-170 Sentinel Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that crashed in eastern Iraq last week while spying on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The photos seemed to corroborate Iran state media's claims that the RQ-170, an unarmed stealth aircraft with the same basic shape as the U.S. Air Force's B-2 bomber, crash-landed "with little damage" after an "electronic-warfare" unit jammed the drone's control signal.
The aircraft in the photos, and to a lesser extent the grainy videos, is intact but shows some signs of scuffing on its belly as well as possible crude repairs to its right wing — potentially an indication that the wing snapped off when the drone struck the ground.
The photos, which show the alleged RQ-170 in what appears to be a gymnasium, being inspected by military officials, were first spotted on Iranian Web forums by aviation reporter David Cenciotti.
But it's possible the airframe Iran is showing off is, in fact, an elaborate fake — for several reasons.
First off, most U.S. analysts believe the Sentinel crashed from high altitude after suffering some kind of systems malfunction. Such a crash would almost certainly result in greater damage than is visible in the Iranian images.
Secondly, Iran has a long history of producing fake weapons or altered photos of weaponry in order to inflate the apparent strength of the dilapidated Iranian military. Several photos of the RQ-170 have been published since its first appearance in 2007. The photos could, in theory, provide the basis of a mock-up.
Finally, a source who has seen an RQ-170 up close at its home base in Utah told The Diplomat that the actual aircraft is larger than the object in the images and differs in the details of its construction.
The airframe in the gymnasium features a grill over its air intake that's vaguely reminiscent of the radar-blocking cover on the engine inlets of the recently-retired F-117 stealth fighter. "The drone being shown on Iranian TV cannot be real, as the RQ-170 I saw … did not have a grill on the intake that I could see," the source said.
The Iranian object and the real RQ-170 also differ in the quality of their welds, the apparent materials used in their construction and, least compellingly, their paintjobs.
The Pentagon has confirmed it lost an RQ-170 but has avoided commenting on the images.