Iran’s Got Our Drone: Distraction or Disaster?

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Let’s say you’re outside walking around when you’re hit in the head by an iPhone that falls from the sky. Just how lucky are you? Pretty darn lucky, especially if you were trying to bring it down. But now that you’ve got it, how much can you learn from it? That’s the challenge facing Tehran following its claim last week that it had brought down one of America’s most-secret reconnaissance systems: the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone.

Several spy experts say that the value of the drone isn’t so much in its aerospace design or mechanics. Instead, its value is in the sensor – or sensors – it had aboard, and the software used to operate those elements. There are some valuable spyware that could have been crammed into the RQ-170’s belly, they suggest, but three key questions remain:

— Just what sensors were aboard?

— Did they self-destruct once its CIA operators learned their drone was AWOL?

— How much of the software – thousands of lines of computer code – remained intact on the drone after it fell to Earth, and was the U.S. able to wipe it clean before it fell into Iranian hands?

Of course, the basic question is even more simple: does Tehran now have a used RQ-170 in its possession? U.S. experts are split on whether or not Iran actually has the drone – one of which the U.S. has publicly acknowledged went missing while flying over western Afghanistan, without specifying what kind of drone it was.

“I’m not sure they even have anything,” says Dave Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “When I looked at what they put out, I said, `Give me a break,'” he says. “It doesn’t look like something that fell from tens of thousands of feet regardless of what kind of landing it made. There are some pretty crude welds on the wing, it’s the wrong color, and they don’t show the lower portion of the aircraft.”

But Pentagon officials privately say they believe it’s the elusive RQ-170, a rare bird seen in only a handful of fuzzy photographs and about which the U.S. has said next to nothing. But they dispute Iran’s claim that it brought down the drone by hacking into its operating system and ordering it to land on Iranian soil. It’s likely the drone was flying over Iran, looking for evidence of Tehran’s alleged nuclear-weapons development efforts, when it suffered some sort of malfunction.

The fact that Iranian TV has only shown the top half of the drone – looking to be in pretty good shape – suggests it may have entered a pre-programmed “flat spin” before crash-landing. It appeared along with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps atop a platform featuring anti-U.S. slogans in a broadcast Thursday.

As for the sensors, the RQ-170 reportedly can collect full-motion video – something it did during the raid in Pakistan on Osama bin Laden in May – or carry an electro-optical/infrared pod well-suited for detecting missile tests or other heat-generating activities. While Iran may not be able to exploit its war trophy via “reverse engineering” – learning its secrets by trying to make a precise replica of it – China is far more skilled at such spywork.

“The Chinese are a generation behind in that part kind of technology, and if they got a working or damaged model of that technology, it’s not good for us,” says military-technology expert Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution. “It’s not easy to reverse engineer – so much of it turns on software – but it is a heck of a lot easier to build it when you have the model up close to study it.”

While U.S. officials considered destroying the drone, one said, the government elected not to take that action. That suggests, he says, that Washington was not as concerned about the drone falling into Iranian hands as some commentators have suggested.

Gen. Hossein Salami, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, said Sunday that the U.S. shouldn’t hold its breath waiting to get its drone back. “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 told Iranian state television.

But in the spy-vs.-spy world that has defined U.S.-Iranian relations for more than three decades, Salami also played coy when it came to saying just what brought the drone into Iran’s possession. “A party that wins in an intelligence battle doesn’t reveal its methods,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “We can’t elaborate on the methods we employed to intercept, control, discover and bring down the pilotless plane.”