Iranian television has broadcast a video of a U.S. drone that Tehran claims to have brought down on its territory, and it's probably safe to say that the images are the stuff of U.S. intelligence officials' nightmares.
In the video, two men dressed in Iranian military uniforms poke and prod at the small, bat-winged aircraft. One gestures to a wing and appears to be explaining something to a decorated superior.
But what? Possibly what until now were highly guarded U.S. advances in covert intelligence gathering.
A banner at the foot of the aircraft in the video reads, "The U.S. cannot do a damn thing," which is a direct quotation from Iran's late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Watch the video of the captured drone shown by Iranian TV
Iran's alleged capture of the drone represents more than just a huge propaganda prize for the regime, which has long been hostile to the United States. It also could be a bonanza of secret U.S. military technology so sensitive that U.S. officials briefly considered going into Iran to try and retrieve the downed aircraft, according to a report in "The Wall Street Journal." The operation was rejected as too risky.
U.S officials have acknowledged the loss of the plane, but a Pentagon spokesman told reporters on December 8 that officials were "not going to talk about these kinds of missions and these kinds of capabilities."
But U.S. and foreign officials briefed on the matter told the "The New York Times" that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone was at the center of a secret program to gather information on possible Iranian nuclear sites.
Top-Secret Treasure Trove
The same day that the Iranian drone video surfaced, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to working with the international community to "prevent" Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if they are indeed pursuing them, as many Western governments have concluded but Tehran denies.
"If they [Iran] are pursuing nuclear weapons, then I have said very clearly: That is contrary to the national security interests of the United States, it is contrary to the national security interests of our allies, including Israel, and we are going to work with the world community to prevent that," Obama said in remarks intended in part to address criticism from the field of aspiring Republican contenders in next year's presidential election.
The United States has used satellites for years to gather intelligence on Iran, which it believes is hiding a nuclear weapons program. But Jason Campbell, a military analyst with the RAND Corporation, says the RQ-170 possesses new and unique capabilities that take covert intelligence gathering to a new level.
"What makes this particular drone quite useful, from an intelligence perspective, is that it can fly at extremely high altitudes -- reportedly up to 50,000 feet. It is capable of staying in the air for hours at a time, which is a luxury you don't have with satellite imagery. [It has] multiple sensors on it; it can intercept electronic communications, it can take air samples to detect whether or not there is any chemicals or other unusual things in the air that might lead one to believe that there is, in the case of Iran, a nuclear program that is active in the area," Campbell says.
"And it also takes what's called 'full-motion video' on the ground, where you're not just taking pictures of hardened targets, you're able to see the comings and goings of individuals and other movement on the ground, which is, again a capability that isn't offered by satellite."
The fear is that Iran, and its close allies China and Russia, will be able to learn and copy those capabilities.
Analysts say the most valuable technology on the drone is probably its ability to detect and gather a vast array of information as it hovers or flies undetected over targets. Its radar capability may also be much more advanced than either Beijing or Moscow has developed, they say.
Not everything about the RQ-170 Sentinel UAV, which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, is secret. The first photos of it became public two years ago, and showed it sitting on a U.S. air base in Afghanistan. Its shape is based on the B-2 stealth bomber, which has been in use by the U.S. military since 1997, including during the war between Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 and in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Did Iran Shoot It Down?
There are competing versions of how the drone ended up on the ground. The chief of the air force of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Ami Ali Hajizadeh, said on December 8 that his forces had brought the aircraft down with an electronic ambush. U.S. officials dismiss that scenario and blame an aircraft malfunction.
When something goes wrong during a drone flight, RAND's Campbell says it is programmed to automatically return to base. But in this instance, he says, something didn't go according to plan.
"We don't know at this point if there has been some sort of a self-destruct mechanism that kicked in, as it should have, but given that many of these drones, particularly this one, is programmed to automatically return to base should there be a satellite disruption -- which is usually the cause of some of these missteps -- the fact that that wasn't engaged, it may suggest that the self-destruct mechanism wasn't activated," Campbell says.
At least one military expert thinks the Iranians may be bluffing. John Pike, an analyst for the website GlobalSecurity.org, says the drone that was shown on Iranian TV looked like "a parade-float model" rather than the high-tech robotic surveillance aircraft itself, and speculated that it was "a mock-up."
Since the plane's weekend downing, analysts and some U.S. officials have said that they don't think it's possible to reverse-engineer the plane's systems and learn how to replicate it. They have also said that the data the drone collected before it crashed is probably unretrievable.
That's no doubt what U.S. officials hope.
"Unfortunately," the RAND Corporation's Campbell says, "We'll probably never know the full story."
with additional agency material
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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