Iran has nearly completed their examination of a crashed U.S. Air Force spy drone and are preparing to reverse-engineer it so it can be mass-produced for the Iranian military.
"The Americans have perhaps decided to give us this spy plane," Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad said during an interview on Venezuelan TV Tuesday night in response to the Obama Administration's request for the drone's return. "We now have control of this plane."
"In the near future we will be able to reproduce it…Iranian engineers will soon build an aircraft superior to the American," according to Parviz Sorouri, a member of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, who was interviewed on Iran state television Monday.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters at a press conference yesterday that it's impossible to know how much information Iran could get from the crashed RQ-170 Sentinel because it's unclear how much damage it took in the crash.
Defense analysts predicted it would be impossible to reproduce the advanced systems on the U.S. drone or gather much intelligence from the encrypted data it carries. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, did acknowledge there is a danger some portions of the design could be copied, however.
Iran reported on Dec. 4 that the drone had crashed inside Iran, about 140 miles from the country's border with Afghanistan. U.S. military officials said the drone was on a mission for the CIA, but was scouting Western Afghanistan, not Iran, when it malfunctioned and eventually crashed.
The RQ-170 does not carry weapons, but is jet-powered, stealthy flying wing design that is far more sophisticated in evading electronic detection and monitoring complex installations than would normally be required in the non-technologically blessed western reaches of Afghanistan, as Sky News pointed out.
Its reputed ability to detect minute samples of airborne chemicals of the kind that could indicate nuclear-fuel development, and to intercept cell-phone conversations from the ground, would be of little use tracking the Taliban.
It is much better suited to covert monitoring of things like nuclear development facilities; the crash site is about halfway between the Iran/Afghanistan border and a cluster of nuclear facilities around Tehran.
Replacing unnecessarily smart drone with an even smarter one
By remarkable coincidence, the Air Force is sending a test version of its most advanced drone for real-world combat testing in Afghanistan, according to Wired's Danger Room.
The General Atomics Predator C "Avenger" is capable of carrying weapons – in internal weapons bays that preserve the radar-frustrating stealthiness intended to keep it safe from radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles the Taliban do not have. Iran and Pakistan, both of which border on Afghanistan, do have lots of radar-guided missiles and a history of shooting at U.S. aircraft that fly in for a look around.
The Avenger also reportedly carries ground-mapping radar and highly sophisticated cameras, both of which are more suited to checking the details on nuclear development plants than they are to tracking small groups of Taliban across remote trails in the high mountains.
There are plenty of lower-tech U.S. drones already flying missions daily in Afghanistan to take care of those types of missions.
U.S. officials haven't said what the Avenger will be given to do.
How did you lose another drone?
Meanwhile, in the Seychelles…Another U.S. drone crashed and was "totally destroyed" according to witnesses on the scent a the Seychelles International Airport on the island of Mahe.
The drone that was destroyed was a propeller-driven MQ-9 Reaper, not the more advanced, jet-powered RQ-170 model that crashed in Iran.
U.S. officials wouldn't say what the Reaper's mission was in the Seychelles – a cluster of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, less than 1,000 miles to the south and east of the coast of Somalia.
State Department cables released by WikiLeaks showed they may have been used for anti-terrorism missions as well as to track pirates in the Indian Ocean, which local officials said was their primary mission.
The Associated Press reported local witnesses who said the unarmed Reaper developed engine problems shortly after takeoff that forced it to return for an emergency landing.
It was moving too fast at touchdown to be able to stop, ran off the end of the runway and crashed with a fire that damaged the craft but was quickly put out, according to AP.
The English-language National Turk collected reports that the Reaper was destroyed in a "fiery crash," as well as confirmation from the U.S. embassy in Mauritius that a drone made an emergency landing Tuesday morning at Seychelles Airport due to mechanical problems.
The Turk suggested both the Reaper crash and loss of the RQ-170 in Iran may have been the result of virus infections detected in drones at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada this fall.
The viruses infected systems in the drone cockpits, but had no impact on operators' ability to control the craft, according to Air Force reports at the time.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.