Iran says it downed U.S. stealth drone
By Greg Jaffe and Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post, December 4, 2011
A secret U.S. surveillance drone that went missing last week in western Afghanistan appears to have crashed in Iran, in what may be the first case of such an aircraft ending up in the hands of an adversary.
Iran’s news agencies asserted that the nation’s defense forces brought down the drone, which the Iranian reports said was an RQ-170 stealth aircraft. It is designed to penetrate enemy air defenses that could see and possibly shoot down less-sophisticated Predator and Reaper drones.
A stealthy RQ-170 drone played a critical role in surveilling the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was hiding in the months before the raid in which he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May.
U.S. officials acknowledged Sunday that a drone had been lost near the Iranian border, but they declined to say what kind of aircraft was missing.
The Iranian government has not released any pictures of the recovered aircraft, which they said was downed by defense forces after it flew across the border and into the country’s airspace. An unnamed Iranian defense official said in one report that a cyberattack caused the drone to crash.
U.S. officials cast doubt on this and other Iranian assertions.
If an RQ-170 drone crashed in Iran, it would mark a significant setback for the U.S. military. The United States has lost less-sophisticated unmanned aircraft in recent years over Iran, but a nearly intact RQ-170 could offer a potential windfall of useful intelligence for the Iranians and their allies.
The aircraft has special coatings and a batwing-like shape that is designed to evade detection by enemy radar. The aircraft could help the Iranians better understand the vulnerabilities of U.S. stealth technology and provide them with clues on how to spot other aircraft, U.S. officials said.
Similar stealth technology is used in U.S. B-2 bombers and is a major feature of the military’s F-35 fighter jet, which is one of the largest and most expensive weapons programs in Pentagon history.
It is not clear what might have caused the drone’s remote pilots to lose control of the aircraft as it flew near the Iranian border. The statement by the Iranian news agency that the surveillance drone had been recovered with “little damage” seemed to cast doubt on the assertions that it had been shot out of the sky.
"If this happened, it is a 95 percent chance that it just malfunctioned," said a second senior Pentagon official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There are a lot of things that can fail."
In the past, pilots have lost satellite connections to drones, causing them to veer off course, run out of fuel and crash. It is also possible that the aircraft suffered other mechanical problems.
A stealth drone, even if it stayed on the Afghan side of the border, could peer several miles into Iran without being detected by Iranian radar and provide useful intelligence about troop movements or insurgent activity in the country.
The incident with the drone follows a week of heightened tensions between Iran and the West after young Iranian hard-liners stormed the British Embassy compound and a separate diplomatic residence in Tehran on Tuesday. Britain pulled its diplomatic staff from the Islamic republic after the attack and ordered Iran’s diplomats to leave London. The Iranian delegation arrived in Tehran on Saturday.