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Tehran's Stealth Drones; Full Implications of Iran's Acquisition of the U.S. RQ-170 in the Middle East and Beyond

July 08th - 2018

The U.S. Military’s loss of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone over Iranian airspace in 2011, one of the most advanced stealth aircraft in the world making use of state of the art American radar evading technologies, continues to be a serious thorn in the side of the Western bloc and its allies to this day. While Iran’s airspace in the early 2003 was extremely poorly defended, with bulky U.S. transport aircraft able to enter at will for extended period during the Iraq and Afghan wars undetected, the country invested heavily in modernising its air defence capabilities in the aftermath of the Iraq war to deter any potential U.S. attacks. The result was that by 2011 the Iranian military was able not only to detect a supposedly invulnerable U.S. RQ-170 stealth platform over its airspace, but also to hijack the aircraft using its electronic warfare systems and land the drone with minimal damage. The U.S. government initially denied the incident, but later acknowledged the loss and requested Iran return it - which Tehran inevitably refused.

The RQ-170 was designed as a high altitude surveillance platform, and was reportedly operating in Iranian airspace to survey the country’s nuclear activities. A number of U.S. sources acknowledged that Iran likely interrupted the drone’s data link and brought the drone in for a soft landing, with the Iranian military feeding the UAV false GPS data to make it land in Iran. It was speculated that the 1L222 Avtobaza advanced radar jamming and deception system Iran had acquired from Russia could well have been key to the success of the operation. The fact that the drone was acquired and displayed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps almost completely intact despite its extreme altitudes indicated that the aircraft had been remotely landed.

While the loss of what was arguably its most sophisticated surveillance drone in the world to Iranian electronic warfare systems was a major embarrassment for the United States, the real danger which stemmed from the RQ-170 incident was that some of the most advanced stealth technology in the world had fallen into Iranian hands. While the loss of the chassis of an F-117 stealth fighter to Serbia, the remains of a stealth aircraft shot down during the 1990s, was considered a major setback to the U.S. stealth programs - with the fighter’s hull being sent to Russia for study of America’s latest stealth technologies, the RQ-170 represented a far greater loss - an intact and far more advanced aircraft in enemy hands. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney criticised the Obama administration’s failure to take further action against Iran to prevent them from studying the drone, stating that the President should have immediately ordered an airstrike against Iran to deny it the valuable technology. Cheney stated: "The right response to that would have been to go in immediately after it had gone down and destroy it. You can do that from the air ... and, in effect, make it impossible for them to benefit from having captured that drone." Considering the importance of the sensitive technology lost, there was a strong rationale for taking such action.

Iran’s acquisition of the RQ-170 has had wide ranging consequences not only for Tehran, but for a number of other potential U.S. adversaries as well. With Iran maintaining a longstanding defence partnership with both North Korea and Russia, it is likely that the two states were provided with details of the drone - both to develop countermeasures to U.S. stealth platforms and to develop their own stealth aircraft. Pyongyang and Tehran have a long history of technology sharing dating back to the early 1980s, and the opportunity to study the RQ-170 could prove an invaluable opportunity to modernise the country’s air defences for counter stealth roles - with new Korean air defence platforms such as the KN-06 having been developed to counter advanced stealth capabilities. China too reportedly may have benefitted from access to and study of the RQ-170, and within five years of the incident the country was testing its own advanced stealth drones which bore a strong resemblance to the American platform. Iran for its part has extensively studied the UAV and, likely with assistance from one of its allies, developed a number of indigenous drone platforms with advanced stealth capabilities.

Two Iranian military UAV classes have reportedly ben developed based on the RQ-170, and are currently in service in large numbers with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Aerospace Division. These were the only stealth drones confirmed to have been deployed by any military outside the Western Bloc and China - though some reports indicate that North Korea has also developed similar stealth drones. Surveillance drones as well as stealthy attack drones have reportedly been developed by Iran, with attack platforms posing a significant threat to U.S. allies in the region - Israel in particular. With the Iranian military expanding its presence in Syria as a result of the power vacuum in the country, and deploying assets near Israel’s borders, an Iranian surveillance drone derived from the RQ-170 reportedly carried out missions inside Israeli airspace amid growing tensions between the two countries. Former head of Mossad Danny Yatom stated regarding the incident: “It was a sophisticated operation. The UAV was almost an exact replica of the U.S. drone that fell in their territory. If it had exploded somewhere in Israel, it may not have been possible to identify it as an Iranian manufactured drone.” The stealth drone reportedly evaded multiple attempts by Israel’s U.S. made Patriot missile batteries to neutralise it from the ground, and the Israeli Defence Force was forced to rely on an attack helicopter to bring down the UAV from the air.

The consequences of the RQ-170 incident have yet to be fully felt by the Western bloc and its allies. With the U.S. military and those of a number of its allies heavily reliant on stealth technology for its their combat aircraft, the development of advanced anti stealth systems based on the RQ-170 are set to undermine the position of the United States on multiple fronts. The development of indigenous Iranian anti aircraft weapons systems such as the Fakour 90 and Bavar-373 long range missiles could well benefit considerably from the ability to study American stealth technology and develop measures to effectively target them. Iran’s stealth fighter program, the Qaher-313, is also likely to benefit from the technologies acquired from the RQ-170, while advanced combat drones based on the design are being deployed by Iranian forces in ever greater numbers. The deployment of these platforms to Syria is set to have serious implications for the balance of power between Iran and Israel, providing Tehran with the long range strike capabilities it has long lacked to engage its heavily armed U.S. aligned adversary. Platforms derived from these same technologies could well soon appear in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. 

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