Earlier this week the Iranian regime announced it had downed an American RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Shortly after this announcement the U.S. military conceded it had lost communication with a UAV while it was conducting operations in Afghanistan near the Iranian border. The RQ-170 is a high altitude, unarmed reconnaissance fixed-wing aircraft. It is thought to operate at altitudes of 50,000 ft.
There have been mixed reports from the Iranians about what caused the suspected drone to fall out of the sky. The first reports to come out of Iran quote Iranian officials saying that Iran had “shot down” an American drone. Then, the Iran claimed to have “downed” the drone. Now, they are claiming an “electronic ambush” brought down the drone causing minimal damage.
Today, Iranian state TV displayed what it claimed was the RQ-170 electronically ambushed earlier this week. As you can see in the photo, it is in near perfect condition, an odd cream color, and slightly different than other photos readily available of the RQ-170. This attempt to score propaganda points would be more convincing if they had paid attention to detail in their attempts to build a model of a RQ-170.
Unless the Iranians have figured out a way to hack into the U.S. command and control nodes for flight operations of their drone fleet, then it seems very hard to believe that a high-altitude drone would fall to the ground and sustain no visible damage. Also, did the electronic ambush cause the drone to turn cream colored, or did Iran manage to take over controls of the only cream colored drone the in the U.S. fleet?
If the Iranians do have the capability to take over the flight operations of drones in the U.S. fleet, this marks an extreme threat to American forces operating armed drones. It would put the Iranians well above the level of sophistication with which we credit them.
While I do not believe the drone on display is the real drone, I do believe that the Iranians are in possession of the debris from the lost drone. The media spectacle is most likely meant to rally the domestic population in opposition to the U.S. Since they most likely do not possess the necessary level of technology to exploit any of the data that may be recoverable, they will probably try to work out a deal with Russia or China who more likely to be able to reverse engineer some of the technology recovered.
I expect a steep rise in the capability of our military rivals’ UAVs in the near future. Darn you Cyberdyne Systems!