James Dunne follows up his Tuesday analysis, "Fact and Fiction on the Crash of an Advanced US Drone":
The disclosures continue to emerge over the US advanced drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, that crashed in eastern Iran on Sunday.
But here's the curious thing --- the revelations are not coming from Tehran. It's the Americans who are talking. A lot.
Indeed, the only mention of the incident in Iranian State media this morning --- on the website of Press TV --- is that the US officials are giving up the story of a "CIA recon mission". Meanwhile, after Fox News, The Washington Post, and CNN all benefited from the initial wave of unnamed US sources, The Wall Street Journal has more tantalising details, "US Made Covert Plan to Retrieve Iran Drone".
So tell me, why are the overseers of Washington's secret missions so eager to play crash-and-tell?
A starting point: was this an attempt to head off Iran’s inevitable showreel of pictures if it has recovered a highly-prized CIA drone? If so, it represents a failure --- so far --- by US intelligence agencies and their political masters, miscalculating Iran’s ability --- or readiness --- to put out the images. Instead, it was one of the Americans who blurted out that the RQ-170 had been taken "largely intact", with eager American rivals and enemies awaiting the revelation of details of an elusive technology .
But that in turn raises the question: what is this aircraft --- the so-called "Beast of Kandahar" --- actually worth?
On a July weekend in southern England in 2004, I saw many of the manned predecessors of the RQ-170. Amongst the various NATO aircraft were two ghostly-looking F117A Nighthawks, attached to the US Air Force 9th Fighter Squadron’s "Flying Knights", surrounded by a cordon and several heavily-armed RAF Regiment Gunners.
The following Sunday, I returned to find the same cordon, minus any jet-black F11/As, but still guarded. My father remarked, “They must have turned the stealth on.” Not quite, but the fictional ideas surrounding "stealth" continue to drive an over-hyped mystique about the technology today.
If we follow the plethora of educated guesswork, the RQ-170 is likely to have similar flight characteristics to the B-2 bomber, a well known and --- though still classified --- quite demystified airframe. With slightly less stealthy engine intakes and rough edges on landing gear flaps, the latest drone is built on a relatively low-budget basis, akin to the single US stealth aircraft for export, the F-35 Lightning II. The avionics are likely no more complex than that of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, itself reputed to be a spawn of the first such semi-autonomous stealth machine, Lockheed’s "Darkstar".
The Sentinel’s loitering in Iranian airspace suggests a reconnaissance rather than a strategic mission, likely removing the possibility any advanced weapons that could fall into enemy hands. This leaves mechanical technology. The General Electric TF34 engine rumoured to be used in the Sentinel comes from the far-from-secret A-10 Warthog and Naval S-3 Viking. The radar-absorbent material is not a particularly unobtainable advance, and neither are the radar deflective aesthetics of the aircraft, the shapes of which can be modelled and re-rendered to scale with any half-decent CAD software and a copy of Photoshop.
So the value to Iran from any retrieved drone is not some super-secret "Technology X", but the blueprints and expertise of how relatively low-value component parts work in unison for the "stealth" low radar observability. Tehran potentially has the opportunity to reverse-engineer the finished article; however, it that is possible for a country with advanced manufacturing abilities and aerospace expertise, say Russia, I am not sure it is likely in the Islamic Republic.
Despite the efforts of US officials to spill the story, the questions over the timing of events and the drone's arrival in Iranian hands –--- if that is accurate --- still elude understanding. Instead, we get the hyperbole of a "largely intact" aircraft with unprecedented bells and whistles that take it beyond any treasure of the Cold War, a portrayal which does not fit what we know about the drone.
So the immediate mystery is not the demise of the RQ-170, likely one of several operated by the CIA or the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, but this --- and forgive my repetition --- "Why are the overseers of Washington's secret missions so eager to play crash-and-tell?"