The curious case of the RQ-170

When dealing with the news organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one can never go too wrong by taking their claims with a liberal pinch of salt. The regime has a long and storied history of making outlandish (if not patently false) claims about its military prowess and capabilities—to engender, one presumes, a feeling of patriotism and camaraderie amongst the hometown crowd. Sometimes they even manage to sell these knee-slapping fabrications to the more credulous members of the world media; other times even the journalists are laughing into their sleeves.

"Stealthy" Saegheh fighter, an F-5 variant. Sept 2006.

Doctored photo of Scud C & Shahab 3A missile test, Apr 2008.

Bavar 2 "radar evading" wing in ground effect craft, Sept 2010.

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It’s hard not to smile at the jaw-dropping audacity of the Iranian state media, so earnestly peddling the official fictions of the defence ministry. The most egregious embellishments—regarding the doctored photo of a missile test, the Saegheh‘s supposed stealth capabilities, and the “radar evading”, very lightly armed wing-in-ground-effect Bavar 2 craft—are also so unnecessary. Few people outside of Iran would actually believe the defence ministry’s overly optimistic statements.

So when one hears the news that Iran has miraculously acquired an American RQ-170 reconnaissance drone—in reasonably good condition—the immediate response must certainly be scepticism. The doubts are doubled when one learns that the Iranians have changed their story—at first claiming the drone was shot down, then claiming that they had taken command of it and forced it to land, mostly intact.

Still, the thing shown on Iranian TV looks an awful lot like an RQ-170, and some unnamed source who had no qualms about spilling the beans to CBS News claimed it was the genuine article, so… maybe it is?

Hard to say one way or other, based solely on the video. The Aviationist has a half-dozen higher-quality still images, over which one can puzzle and hunt for additional clues. The first thing your correspondent did was grab a nearly head-on shot and crank up the brightness, in order to see whether anything lurked behind the grill covering the engine inlet.

Engine inlet with brightness increased substantially.

If it’s a model or a mock-up, it was at least built by someone who had the foresight to include detail behind the grill; something that seems like it ought to lead to a turbine and compressor blades.

There’s plenty else, though, that doesn’t add up—hence my ambivalence. Instead of the medium blue-grey paint common to USAF aircraft, this drone sports a yellow-beige colour familiar to anyone who’s built an epoxy model kit. Then there’s the duct-tape-like adhesive covering breaks in the wings just outboard of the topside fairings. If the aircraft had been shot down, then showing it in a damaged state ought not to have been an issue. If it had been landed by Iranians after a successful cyberattack, one could also forgive a multitude of bumps and scrapes; the Iranian pilot, after all, wouldn’t know the particular handling qualities of that aircraft type. Nor would he have been presented with many prior opportunities to refine his descent profile and landing technique. Even if the thing had to be cut into thirds for transport, what would be the point in making such a sloppy repair job visible to the television audience?

The claim to have taken control of the drone is entirely spurious. In years past there have been media accounts of insurgents bootlegging Predator video feeds, but it’s important to note that what the insurgents saw was just the ISR output. The command and control signals are encrypted to prevent the sort of cyberattacks that Iran is trying to claim it can execute. I have no doubt that Iran could purchase jammers of adequate range and power, but this would merely cause the drone to fall back upon its loss-of-signal protocol.

The Pentagon confirms they lost contact with a drone last week, and that its last known position and heading would have brought it down just inside Iran. But this too presents problems. All military drones of a certain size have a Flight Termination System (or FTS)—which, in the dry parlance of the DoD, is designed to put an uncontrolled / hazard aircraft in a zero lift, zero thrust condition via some kind of destructive mechanism. The more expensive sorts of drones (and especially the high-altitude kind who must rely on SATCOM for their C2 signals) have less catastrophic safeguards, too. Their loss of signal protocol is to climb to best comm altitude and return to base (or designated orbit point) while trying to re-establish the C2 link and positive control.  This has been relatively standard practice for the larger UAVs, and was successfully implemented in 2002′s X-45 program; it’s hard to believe later designs don’t also incorporate these safeguards.

Last week when this RQ-170 lost contact with its ground-based pilots, it ought to have turned around to come back to the barn. That it apparently did not (and now has a starring role on Iranian television) presents more questions than your correspondent could presume to answer. But perhaps the biggest is how—absent any positive control from the ground—would it manage to come down in such an intact state? The RQ-170 is believed to have an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and perhaps more usually inhabits the slightly less rarified altitudes common to long-haul airliners and fast business jets. Descending safely from such a height is not beyond the realm of possibility—the drone may have entered either a flat spin or a “falling leaf” stall, robbing it of much forward and vertical velocity, but arriving unscathed on the ground after such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare and unlikely.

I don’t know what to think, to be honest, but it will be fascinating to learn the truth one day.

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