Posted on 9th Dec 2011 @ 1:43 PM
Iran triumphantly displayed one of America’s most advanced intelligence-gathering aircraft on Thursday after a spy drone crashed on its territory, leading Russia and China to ask to inspect its technology.
The RQ-170 Sentinel, supposedly the CIA’s unseen “eye in the sky”, capable of beaming back a trove of imagery and electronic intercepts, was broadcast on Iranian state television.
The aircraft was shown beneath an Iranian flag, apparently intact after crashing 140 miles inside the country last Sunday. State television claimed that an electronic attack had forced it down by overriding flight systems. American officials acknowledged the loss of the aircraft, but said it was more likely the drone had simply crashed.
Russia and China immediately seized their chance to gain a unique insight into one of the world’s most powerful intelligence assets, asking Iran for permission to inspect the drone. Surveillance flights over Iran by CIA-operated aircraft of this kind have been taking place for several years, using bases in neighbouring Afghanistan. Iran’s nuclear installations are believed to be the prime target.
The Sentinel, which entered service in 2009, is capable of both intercepting communications and gathering images. No Sentinels are known to have been lost before. Unlike other drones used by the CIA, notably the Predator and the Reaper, the Sentinel carries no weapons and its sole purpose is reconnaissance.
If Russia and China are allowed to inspect the Sentinel, their goal would be to identify - and then replicate - its advanced technology. Elizabeth Quintana, an expert on unmanned air vehicles at the Royal United Services Institute, said they would be particularly interested in the drone’s ability to evade detection by radar.
This “stealth technology” is also used by the most advanced “fifth generation” fighters in service with the US Air Force, notably the F-22 Raptor. “The Chinese and the Russians are looking to emulate the US fifth generation fighters,” said Ms Quintana. “The Chinese are very keen to replicate any American technologies and they are coming along in leaps and bounds.”
They would also want to study the RQ-170’s sensors, which allow it to keep large areas under surveillance while the drone loiters, undetected, at an altitude of 50,000 feet. The Russians and Chinese would also focus on its electronic eavesdropping capabilities and the mission systems that allow the aircraft to be guided and controlled.
In 2001, China managed to get hold of a P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, operated by the US Navy, when it was forced down after a mid-air collision. This allowed China to develop counter-measures to the surveillance systems carried by the Orion, forcing the US to upgrade its entire fleet.
Ms Quintana said the American would be worried about the possibility of the “same thing happening” in respect of the Sentinel. It was “standard procedure” for US forces to recover or destroy any drones that are lost, she added. This aircraft appears to have gone down too far inside Iran for any such operation to be feasible.
Russia and China have relatively cordial relations with Tehran, although they allowed the United Nations to pass four resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.
The Iranian armed forces are likely to use their possession of the drone as a bargaining counter and to seek concessions from Russia and China in return for allowing inspections. But Iran could lack the expertise needed to examine the Sentinel and reverse engineer its technology.
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