Loss of the RQ-170: What Happens Next?

Loss of the RQ-170: What Happens Next?
Back in December 2009, armchair aviation nerds were ecstatic when the US Air Force unveiled the existence of the Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealth UAV drone that had been photographed in Kandahar, Afghanistan . The plane was previously photographed at an air base in early 2009 and the pictures were posted on a French newspaper blog called Liberation. The situation was followed closely by Bill Sweetman and company over at Aviation Week, who subsequently nicknamed it “The Beast of Kandahar”. So, what is the strategic importance of The Beast of Kandahar? What are the future implications of its recent capture by the Iranian government?

Timeline of the evolution of the RQ-170

Above is a timeline generated with Recorded Future of the evolution of the RQ-170 Sentinel aircraft. At least one analyst speculated in December 2009 that the aircraft could be used to fly over Iranian airspace:

“Experts such as Phil Finnegan, a UAV analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm, suggest [Beast’s] stealth capabilities are being used to fly in nearby countries. Neighboring Iran has an air force and air defense system that would require stealth technology to penetrate”

And there is one emerging cyber warfare technology could make the RQ-170 an attractive platform for launching electronic attacks into Iran. A January 2011 Wired article discussed the introduction of a new Navy jamming aircraft with the capability of launching cyber attacks on ground targets using on-board components. The article then speculated that the RQ-170 could become a stealth platform for launching stealth cyber attacks on Iranian infrastructure and other hostile targets:

“Hints that air-launched cyberattacks could shut down industrial (and nuclear) operations could explain why the Air Force has been flying stealthy RQ-170 drones near Iran. The NGJ could expand on that apparent capability”

This all remains speculative though since it has only been confirmed that the aircraft was carrying, “high-definition cameras and sensors that can scan for nuclear armaments”. So what are the future implications of the RQ-170 falling into the wrong hands?
Future-facing implications of the loss of the RQ-170 drone

From the timeline, we see that the drone’s capture may “provide little intelligence to Iran”. It seems that the Iranians will have difficulty extracting any data from the aircraft and that, “it is unlikely that Iran would be able to recover any surveillance data from the aircraft”. This is in line with reports we found from other analysts suggesting that the situation, “isn’t nearly as big an intelligence loss as the media and some pundits are making it out to be”. One takeaway quote from the article mentions that the drone would have failed eventually:

That one of many drones dedicated to collecting intelligence over Iran has fallen into Iranian hands is also expected given the law of averages. Drones crash at rates higher than manned aircraft for any number of reasons, including due to human error, incorrect information, network interference, system failure, weather, or being shot down. As a former official warned: “It was never a matter of whether we were going to lose one but when”

The fascinating point here is that Sweetman predicted this event in 2009. At that time, he also hypothesized that this would not be much of an intelligence loss. In an article to Aviation Week called “Stealth over Afghanistan”, he indicated that the RQ-170 designers may have avoided using, “’highly sensitive technologies due to the near certainty of eventual operational loss inherent with a single engine design and a desire to avoid the risk of compromising leading edge technology”. This prediction is in accordance with some of the analyses we have seen about the loss.

So what is the real danger presented by the loss of the RQ-170? News sources have cited foreign reverse-engineering as the number one threat: “Chinese or Russian access to the drone is a much greater concern than a possible Iranian effort to reverse-engineer the RQ-170”. The timeline above related to future implications of the loss tells us that we should, “look for the RQ-170 copy at the Zhuhai [air show] next year” in China. The compromise and subsequent reverse-engineering of stealth technology by foreign powers has a storied history. The U2 spyplane, F-117 Nighthawk, and a mysterious stealth copter used in the Osama Bin Laden raid were all compromised. In the recent Osama Bin Laden raid, Pakistan allowed the Chinese to examine and gather samples of the stealth aircraft. The loss of the RQ-170 drone will allow China and Russia more of an opportunity to peer into American stealth technology and incorporate it into their own military hardware.


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