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U.S. drone a tech challenge for Iran

Islamic republic could unlock secrets by asking Russia, China

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2012

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.

In the past, RQ-170s have carried active phased-array radar - a next-generation radar that allows one to use radar while staying stealthy, Mr. Singer said.

It also has carried full-motion video sensors and other sensors that can detect material composition or radioactive traces.

The RQ-170 is not fitted with a weapons platform, like the Predator and Reaper drones, which have been used to launch deadly airstrikes on insurgents in Pakistan's North Warizistan and elsewhere.

There are some limitations as to what Iran and others could learn from the captured RQ-170, according to Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council.

The RQ-170 is now a few years old, and no longer represents the best of U.S. technology, he said. "This wasn't our best drone, but it wasn't anywhere near our worst."

Even with assistance from China and Russia, Iran would find the drone hard to replicate, said Edward Walby, a business director for U.S. defense technology firm Northrop Grumman.

"If your grandmother bakes you a really good chocolate cake and gives you the recipe, it's how you put it together that matters, how you use it, what are your techniques, knowledge and experience," said Mr. Walby, a retired Air Force colonel who commanded the first squadron of drones in the Afghanistan war.

But there are also political consequences from the lost drone.

For instance, Iran can give China and Russia access to the drone in exchange for their support against punitive actions over its nuclear program.

Talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany are expected to resume soon, and China and Russia wield veto power in the council.

Overall, experts say the lost drone is more of an embarrassment than a game changer.

"We're the equivalent of the guy from Apple that left the iPhone in the bar," Mr. Singer said. "It didn't destroy Apple or the iPhone, but it made it a lot easier for everybody else to understand what this thing is, and maybe even do their own knockoffs."

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