Pirated American technology provides the source and spur for the Iranian Air Force’s current drive to build ever more military drones and upgrade its current fleet. The new technology was ripped out of the captured Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, colloquially known as The Beast of Kandahar, the details of whose design and capabilities are still highly classified. The secret drone was trapped by Iran in December 2011 while flying over its air space, together with its precious trove of the most advanced reconnaissance equipment ever devised.
Because this technology is beyond Iranian engineering capacity and experience, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Tehran lost no time in commissioning Russian and Chinese specialists to perform reverse engineering on their prize and adapt it to Iranian use.
Those specialists have spent the last 10 months in Iran aiding in the grafting of the Beast of Kandahar’s most sophisticated features onto the mongrel Beast of Tehran, but most, of course, to help themselves to top secret American technology for enhancing their own air forces, intelligence arms and cyber-warfare departments.
(See a separate article in this issue on Israel’s capture of Iranian drone components).
Tehran has frustrated them by turning down generous offers from Moscow and Beijing to permit the RQ-170 to be shipped to their countries.
Tehran is tightfisted about sharing its bonanza
According to our sources, the Chinese team in Tehran is double the size of the Russian delegation. It includes Chinese cyber experts who were also responsible for trapping the Sentinel in the first place. All the Iranians had to do was to collect the RQ-170 from its landing-site.
See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 520 of Dec. 9, 2011: Who Gave Iran the Technology for Trapping the US Stealth Drone?)
Tehran’s tight fist in sharing its prize with its Russian and Chinese helpers has put the brakes on progress in more than one way:
1. In ten months, the two invited engineering teams have only twice been allowed to examine the Sentinel up close, step inside the vehicle and photograph it; most of the time it was out of bounds.
2. Wondering how the foreign teams managed to perform their task, some Western intelligence agencies, especially Americans and Israelis, suggest that Iran disassembled the captured US drone into many components and assigned each to a separate, mixed Iranian-foreign team.
Even with full, untrammeled access, replicating stealth technology would be a tall order. Experienced specialists, too, are often stumped by the challenge. The process tends to be protracted because an expert team when stumped may turn to improvising. If they come to a dead end, even hotshots must go back to square one and start again.
3. In this case, the process is slowed further by the exclusive concentration of the full picture of the project and its progress in the hands of a trio of high-ranking Iranians.
Adapting the RQ-170’s special features is a slow job
Western intelligence sources name them as Fereydoun Abbasi-Davnai, Director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Commission, and two deputies.
He is running the Russian and Chinese experts after successfully directing the work their cyber experts performed to cleanse the nuclear program’s nuclear systems of the Stuxnet malwork invasion last year.
His deputies are thought to be two Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) generals, one of whom is an expert on drone engineering and the other, a cyber-intelligence whiz.
This compartmentalization, designed to thwart Russians and Chinese attempts to commandeer RQ-170 secrets for their own use, seriously impedes the progress of their work for adapting the top secret US stealth and other classified technology for integration in Iran’s UAVs and aircraft.
Because of the brakes on the project, the drone the Iranians sent over Israel Saturday, Oct. 6, was not a finished product. The clumsily-built helicopter with a stealth feature – the first of its kind ever built – was a beta version sent out to test the efficacy of the reverse engineering performed on the RQ-170 and find out whether it was ready for a role in the war potentially impending with Israel and perhaps also with the US.
Proud display of RQ-170 models on Tehran parades
Tehran cannot contain its pride in its American prize.
On 11 Feb. 2012, the IRGC exhibited a model of the US RQ-170 at pro-government rallies in Tehran celebrating the 33rd anniversary of Iran’s victorious Islamic Revolution. The IRGC said it was a reconstruction by their aerospace unit.
Eight months later, between 21 and 28 of September, more replicas were exhibited in Police Park in northeastern Tehran. Those models don’t show whether Iran has been able to absorb the features that distinguish the Sentinel and enable it to evade enemy defenses, or how successful their Russian and Chinese advisers have been in reverse-engineering those features.
Israel’s capture of a complete Iranian drone has been partially instructive, as reported in the opening article of this issue.