How valuable is downed US drone to Iran?

US officials privately confirm that a super-secret RQ-170 drone has fallen into Iran's hands. Now they want to know what brought it down and how valuable is the loss.

By , Staff writer

Now that US officials are privately confirming that Iran has a US super-secret RQ-170 drone, two key questions remain:

How did the CIA’s unmanned spy aircraft fall into Iranian hands, especially since photos and videos show it to be largely intact? And how valuable a loss is it?

Pentagon and CIA officials have not publicly acknowledged that the bat-shaped thing shown by Iran is the RQ-170 that went missing earlier this week. But unnamed high-level officials have told several news sources that it appears to be an actual RQ-170.

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Meanwhile, analysts differ on the cost of the loss to US intelligence and technology.

“This is the jewel for them now,” robotics expert Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution told the Associated Press. “It depends on what was on the plane on this mission, but one sensor it has carried in the past is an AESA radar. This is a very advanced radar that really is a difference maker for our next generation of planes, not just drones, but also manned ones like F-22s and F-35s.”

Other experts aren’t so sure.

“From a secrecy standpoint, it’s like dropping a Ferrari into an ox-cart technology culture,” national security analyst Richard Aboulafia told Air Force Times. “But I’m sure they can sell it to someone who can get some kind of information out of it. But the mission systems are likely to be too encrypted to be of use to anyone.”

The Iranian news site Nasim reported Thursday that Russian and Chinese experts were on their way to Iran to examine the downed drone.

Ty Rogoway, an aviation writer and photographer who blogs at AviationIntel.com, notes that the RQ-170 has done much of its work over Pakistan, a country with close ties to China.

“If indeed Iran shot down an RQ-170 as it has claimed, or one had crashed while spying on Iran’s nuclear program or conducting other duties over their airspace, it may be a technological loss to America but not to the extent that all of our most sensitive stealth secrets would be totally compromised,” he writes. “In other words, the wreckage would be akin to say (with great speculation) America’s early 90′s stealth technology, with a few sensitive modern subsystems onboard.”

Earlier, analysts had figured that had an RQ-170 been shot down or otherwise crashed, it would have ended up “a pile of wreckage,” as one put it.

Given what appears to be a nearly-intact drone in Iran’s hands, however, they’re now wondering why it didn’t self-destruct or automatically return to base when its ground controllers lost contact, as it’s programmed to do.

“Either this was a cyber/electronic warfare attack system that brought the system down or it was a glitch in the command-and-control system,” national security analyst Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told Air Force Times.

He compares it to the shooting down of the CIA’s high-altitude U-2 spy aircraft over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Loss of the RQ-170 drone is “the biggest Christmas present to our enemies in probably a decade, at least,” Goure said. “Everybody now will get an understanding of our state-of-the-art intelligence collection capabilities.”

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