By Li Hongmei
The just bygone week has witnessed tussles in reality and in virtual world between Iran and its archenemy the U.S. On Thursday, Iran's state TV broadcast videoes of what it said was the Lockheed Martin-built RQ-170 Sentinel UAV that, Tehran said, its forces shot down earlier the week, and had thereby lodged a diplomatic complaint over the violation of its airspace.
The brief footage offered the first evidence that Tehran had captured the aircraft, identified as the RQ-170 Sentinel drone. The beige-colored drone appeared intact and undamaged. The aircraft, equipped with most advanced surveillance system, was designed for intelligence gathering and relaying communications. It was reportedly brought down while hovering over Iran’s airspace to spy on its military and nuclear facilities.
The U.S., however, was reluctant to believe Iran’s purported capture of its most treasured hi-tech stealth jet. According to a senior U.S. military source with intimate knowledge of the Sentinel drone, the aircraft quite likely "wandered" into Iranian air space after losing contact with its handlers and was presumed to be intact since it is programmed to fly level and find a place to land, rather than crashing.
The Pentagon had earlier just officially acknowledged that an unmanned aircraft of an unspecified type was “missing” over western Afghanistan.
Still, U.S. president Obama made a statement on Dec.12, first confirming that the stealthy high-altitude spy plane had been captured by Iran.
"We've asked for it back. We'll see how the Iranians respond," Obama said during a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a tit-for-tat response, Iranian officials stated that they will not return the aircraft and promised to reverse-engineer the jet's technology.
Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, remarked on state television that the violation of Iran’s airspace by the U.S. drone was a “hostile act” and warned of a “bigger” response.
“No one returns the symbol of aggression to the party that sought secret and vital intelligence related to the national security of a country,” Salami said Sunday.
It is unclear whether Iran could technologically glean from what it seized as it vowed, but the capture of the unarmed surveillance drone intact would give access to a treasure trove of classified information including the designs of the aircraft and its payload of sensors.
Experts also made the assumption that Iran could deal a significant blow to the U.S. military, as the event "allowing Tehran to counter or copy the highly classified technology."
The RQ-170 Sentinel, made by Lockheed Martin, has been used in Afghanistan for years. It gained notoriety earlier this year when officials disclosed that one was used to keep watch Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan as the raid that killed him was taking place.
On top of the fearsome prospect that Iranian engineers could potentially find ways to defeat the U.S. stealth technology and disillusion the Pentagon’s ambition to take advantage of these less costly unmanned hi-tech jets to make a global network of surveillance, it is also most likely that the jet has come under external attack via cyber or electronic means.
Although it is highly dubious that it could currently hacker into the operating system of UAVs, Iran would still pose a severe threat to the future unmanned drones and fighters which extensively employ data link, once it proves that RQ-170 Sentinel fell into Iran’s hands by means of cyber attacks.
Also, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may well recompose his polyphony of Air-sea battle concept, as the UAV plays an inalienable part in the U.S. global strategy.