Downed US drone: How Iran caught the 'beast'
Iran's apparent capture of a largely intact RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, which was reportedly monitoring Iran's nuclear program, is a significant loss for the US.
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But this drone is not the most sophisticated stealth technology in the US arsenal, according to the website AviationIntel.com.Skip to next paragraph
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The RQ-170 was "most likely constructed with expendability in mind," and so had "dumbed-down stealth characteristics" that would mean the US military's "most sensitive stealth secrets" would not be compromised, the site says.
AviationIntel also says Iran recently received from Russia an advanced mobile jamming and intelligence system called "Avtobaza" that could have detected the drone and perhaps jammed its communications links.
"There is no reason why [that] system could not have detected the Sentinel's electronic trail and either jammed it and/or have alerted fighter aircraft and SAM [surface-to-air missile] installations as to its whereabouts," said AviationIntel on its site. "Further, these systems are supposed to be used in direct conjunction with Iran's nuclear development sites."
While the drone could have operated with limited electronic connectivity, making it less visible, AviationIntel indicates, a "more likely scenario" would be one of "actively transmitting live video, detailed radar maps, or electronic intelligence, in real-time," making detection easier by the Russian-made system.
Iranian officials said that this is not the first drone to be shot down in the region. Last January, Hazijadeh told an IRGC publication that Iran had "shot down a large number of their highly advanced spy planes." They were brought down outside Iranian airspace, and Iran "invited Russian experts" to see two of them," and later reproduced them through reverse engineering," reported the Fars News Agency, which is linked to the IRGC.
Iran's own technical capacity is unknown. The country has excelled in some fields like nanotechnology, and stem-cell research, and created a sophisticated nuclear program that includes 8,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium – despite an array of sanctions.
But there are also limits, as evidenced by the launch of Iran's first Omid (Hope) satellite in 2009. While that event put Iran into an elite scientific club of just nine nations, the innards of the satellite appeared to be rudimentary.
State TV showed footage at the time of the satellite being assembled into a square silver box, its guts similar to those of a 1950s transistor radio, with D-size batteries and wires held in place with black electrical tape. Iran has also frequently made claims about advanced military systems that later proved exaggerated.
Aerial surveillance inside Iran is not new, according to a Washington Post report from early 2005 noted by the EAWorldview website. US officials said US drones were at the time "penetrating Iranian airspace" from bases in Iraq, using "radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity," the Post reported.
"We've always relied on [drones] as a force multiplier, a technological edge that we've had, and we've always known it wouldn't be a permanent advantage," says Densmore. Opponents "are expecting us now to deploy these things, they're looking for them, so a lot of that advantage has been lost."
(The original version of this story incorrectly attributed authorship. The piece was written by staff writer Scott Peterson.)
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