Recently, Iran has flaunted its supposed extraction of sensitive intelligence data from the downed U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone that it captured in December 2011. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a top level general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, has stated that Iran obtained intelligence from the aircraft, and plans on reverse engineering the entire machine.
Hajizadeh cited specific information gleaned from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, stating that it had been in California for “technical work” on October 16, 2010, and that it had flown over the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan two weeks prior to the raid leading to his death.
Whether Iran really did take down the drone, or the aircraft simply malfunctioned, is unclear and will probably never be disseminated by the U.S. intelligence community. However, evidence points to their having the capability to do so. In any case, Iran is chalking this one up to a win, and for good reason.
Many downplay Iran’s cyber warfare capabilities, but rare glimpses of Iran’s technical prowess have come to the foreground. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google publicly stated: “The Iranians are unusually talented in cyber war for some reason we don’t fully understand.” Iran recently allocated $1 billion to its cyber warfare program. It seems to be generally understood that Iran is working hard towards becoming a major player in the cyber realm. But have they already made it?
For one thing, General Hajizadeh is being incredibly specific about the information pulled from the downed Sentinel craft. In fact, Edwards Air force Base in Southern California is a major testing area for drones, and Lockheed’s Skunk Works location, which developed the RQ-170, is located just outside of Los Angeles. It is highly possible that this specific craft spent time at both of these places.
The General also said that the drone had been in Kandahar, citing the specific date of November 18, 2010. After that, the drone returned to California for further work based on technical malfunctions, and then returned to Afghanistan. While anyone can make up dates, the chronology of the events Hajizadeh describes makes sense. Additionally, the U.S. has been squeamish about divulging any facts about this lost craft — understandably so —and seems to be doing little to argue against Iranian claims.
What’s more concerning than a specific drone’s history — especially since the U.S. has admitted that it spies on Iran’s nuclear sites from the air — is the possibility that Iran could reverse engineer the highly sophisticated targeting systems used by the craft, as well as its radar-deflecting paint. Should Iran succeed in this endeavor, and they are certainly trying, it would be a serious blow to one of the U.S.’s most vital covert intelligence capabilities.
As far as public statements go, the U.S. habitually downplays Iran’s military capabilities. Let’s hope that they aren’t being so foolish at The Pentagon this time.