U.S. drone a tech challenge for Iran

Islamic republic could unlock secrets by asking Russia, China

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Iran likely would turn to Russia or China for help in reverse engineering a U.S. drone that landed in its territory last year because the Islamic republic lacks the manufacturing capability to replicate the technology.

U.S. experts say China and Russia each have a broader scientific and manufacturing capacity than Iran and the proven capability to reverse engineer advanced technology.

Last year, China unveiled its first stealth jet fighter, which experts say is modeled after a U.S. F-117 that crashed in Serbia more than 10 years ago.

“We did a big solid for Chinese aeronautics,” Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said of the U.S. spy drone that landed in Iran in December.

“The joke I’ve made is that the airline flights from Moscow and Beijing to Tehran were probably full the next week after.”

The consequences of U.S. drone technology falling into Iranian, Russian or Chinese hands are not disastrous but definitely aren’t good, said Joe Cirincione, an arms control expert.

China and Russia aren’t adversaries, but they’re not exactly friends. You never like to give your competitor any advantage, and them having your most secret technologies is a problem,” said Mr. Cirincione, who is a member of a scientific board advising Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment, and instead referred to White House press secretary Jay Carney’s Dec. 13 statement that Iran’s claims that it had a role in bringing the drone down are “an attempt to distract attention from a lot of internal strife, an economy that has ground to a halt, and a level of isolation that they have never experienced.”

Even if Iran cannot create a replica of the U.S. drone, Mr. Cirincione said, it can glean valuable information, such as what the U.S. is watching and how.

For example, he said, if Iran knows the U.S. has ground-piercing radar, it would try to configure its facilities so that they are outside the range of U.S. surveillance.

“Knowing what the enemy can see helps you better conceal your activities,” he said.

Engineers who have worked with the U.S. military can only publicly speculate as to what sensitive technologies were on the RQ-170 surveillance drone.

Everything about that unmanned aircraft is classified except that it exists, said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Sensitive features could include the drone’s shape, coating, software and sensors.

For example, tail pieces and inlets are usually placed in such a way to minimize detection by radar, said Brian Argrow, director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles at the University of Colorado.

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