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Iran Analysis: Fact and Fiction on the Crash of an Advanced US Drone

RQ-170 Sentinel DroneJames Dunne writes for EA:

Speculation continues over the alleged downing of a US drone by the Iranian military, with Tehran claiming it holds a "lightly damaged", Lockheed Martin RQ-170, the latest generation of stealth aircraft, which they brought down with cyber-warfare as the airplane patrolled eastern Iran. US military officials have reportedly told Fox News that an RQ-170 Sentinel has been lost in operations in western Afghanistan, but they deny that it fell prey to "hostile action".

So what can we establish as fact and what can we dismiss as fiction?

Well, if it is the RQ-170, whose existence interestingly enough was first confirmed on 4 December 2009 by the US Air Force, then there are several possible reasons for its loss.

Unless the US Air Force and CIA,  the main operators of reconnaissance and operational drones since their deployment in the mid-1990s, have set up a network of satellites dedicated to the squadrons deployed simultaneously worldwide, the use of the drones is likely a serious drain on the already limited bandwidth of defence communications satellites. Though it does not seem likely that other users’ would infringe upon these requirements in terms of throughput, it is possible that a drain on the network caused a delay at either the operator or aircraft’s end, requiring the aircraft to run on autopilot.

Given this reliance upon onboard flight computers, whose increasing complexity is also a candidate for blame, ny unexpected weather patterns or related flight problems could have put the aircraft into difficulty, because of its design’s aerodynamic instability. The advantage of the flying-wing design with no "tail", is that there is reduced drag, and therefore greater fuel efficiency. The major disadvantage is the lack of yaw control, which, in the event of a stall precludes recovery; especially given the communications lag --- even a few seconds could make the difference between arresting control and ditching.

As for the Iranian military's claim --- unquestioned by some mainstream media --- that it can use computers to interfere with US command-and-control systems for the drones....

The idea that Iran could "jam" the system implies that they have either gained supremely powerful ground-based jamming stations or that they have aircraft equipped with radio frequency jammers that are A) capable of detecting stealth flights and b) able to intercept and prevent the microwave communications used up to the Sentinel’s purported ceiling of 50,000 feet. All of this indicateds a well-oiled, synchronised effort between numerous radar interception stations and air defences. This seems more than unlikely.

And if Iran has captured some wreckage of a crashed drone, it does not necessarily mean that they have a whole or even useful remnant of the fuselage. During the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden in May in Pakistan, all that was left of a stricken "stealth hawk" UH-60 helicopter  was the rotor hub and the tail boom. Whether demolition charges have been built in to drones, after frequent losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not known, but even without them, the fragilely-built RQ-170 probably left no more of value than an engine. And considering that Iran is yet to demonstrate an ability to remanufacture its aging squadron of 1970s F-14 Tomcat fighters, it is unlikely that even a fully operational drone --- say one seized by Tehran's claimed cyber-warriors and landed at Imam Khomeini International --- will be of any use.

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