What Does the Downed U.S. Drone in Iran Mean for U.S. Security?

What is the value of Iran’s apparent capture of a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, reportedly monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, to Iran?

If this is a RQ-170, which it sure looks like, the irony is that it still isn’t any kind of major victory for Iran. They’ve been handed a pretty good propaganda victory, especially in changing the international focus from their nuclear program and recent storming of the embassy to something else. Even here, though, note the difference between the propaganda they get from this versus if we had a pilot killed or captured al la the Gary Powers U-2 spy plane shootdown during the Cold War.

But as much as they crow, it doesn’t changed bottom line realties. The plane was being used in operations to monitor nuclear weapons research, research which is in contravention of their international agreements. Yes, we engage in spying, like every other state. And in this case we got caught spying on something the international community agrees is a major problem, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

Nor is the balance of forces in any potential future conflict altered by this loss. They tilt against Iran’s airpower, whether it’s in some potential future conflict with us or against some regional state like Israel or one of the GCC. Yes, the loss shows they have some good air defenses, especially now it appears on the electronic warfare side (note that the Russians sold them an advanced system earlier this year). But our downed plane is not a system they have the technical savvy or manufacturing base to reverse engineer in a major way, nor is it a system that makes up what we would use in a major armed strike against them. We still can do that if we so wanted.

Rather, the real value to them –beyond rubbing egg in our face with more cheesy videos – is as a new asset for an isolated country to engage in wheeling and dealing with other like-minded nations. Think about how the Serbs sold off parts of a crashed F-117 Stealth fighter during the 1990s Balkans wars or how bits of the crashed US stealth copter lost on the Bin Laden raid were reputed to have gone from Pakistan to China. Indeed, my guess is that the airline flights between Moscow and Beijing to Tehran this week were likely quite full.

So what is the value of the system? Would it be easy to reverse engineer?

Our loss here is not so much the basic design of a stealthy airplane, which all know the essentials of (bat wing, no tail, etc). Rather it, is component aspects like the materials, even down to the coatings, internal avionics, how it deals with heat signature, etc. The Chinese for example, are behind us in even basic things like high performance jet engines. But most important are the sensors the plane carried. This is the jewel for them now. Note, the bottom of the plane was shielded in the photos released by Iran so we don’t know what was carried or what was damaged and how much. It depends on what was on the plane on this mission, but one sensor the RQ-170 has carried in the past is a AESA Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. This is a very advanced radar that really is a difference maker for our next generation planes, not just drones, but also manned ones like F-22s and F-35s. It allows a plane to be stealthy but still use its radar without detection. The Chinese are close to a generation behind us in that. Another system our plane might have carried is a special type of sensor we use for monitoring suspected nuclear sites, that can detect the composition of materials from a distance and other trace signatures.

Bottom line, its never easy to reverse engineer anything, let alone something complex like a sensor system, but having a working or even damaged system in hand to study up close makes it a heck of a lot easier to both defend against it in the future or build your own derivative.