By Cherice Chen
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2011-12-09 03:34 PM
US intelligence officials are assessing the apparent loss of its highly classified technology.
The official Iranian Republic News Agency reported that the Foreign Ministry protested the “violation of Iran’s airspace by a US spy drone on Dec 4,” the day Iranian forces claimed to have shot down the aircraft, 140 miles inside the Iranian border from Afghanistan.
Several US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified, said the greatest concern is that access to the aircraft could give Russian or Chinese scientists insight into its flight controls, communications gear, video equipment and any self-destruct or return-to-base mechanisms.
In addition, they said, the remains of the RQ-170 could help a technologically sophisticated military or science establishment develop Infrared Surveillance and Targeting (IRST) technology that under some conditions are capable of detecting stealth aircraft such as drones and the new Lockheed Martin F-35s.
The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on whether the aircraft Iran displayed is real. A US defense official, however, said the plane appears to be an actual RQ-170, though he said US experts were still examining the video.
The aircraft shown on Iranian TV appeared to be in good condition for a high-altitude plane that the Iranians initially said they had shot down.
The most frightening prospect raised by what appears to be a largely intact Sentinel is that the Iranians’ second claim about how they brought it down ― by hacking into its controls and landing it themselves ― might be true, said a US intelligence official, who spoke only on the basis of anonymity because the RQ-170 is part of a Secret Compartmented Intelligence (SCI) program, a classification higher than Top Secret.
The official said the possibility that the Iranians or someone else hacked into the drone’s satellite communications is doubly alarming because it would mean that Iranian or other cyber-warfare officers were able to disable the Sentinel’s automatic self-destruct, holding pattern and return-to-base mechanisms.
Those are intended to prevent the plane’s secret flight control, optical, radar, surveillance and communications technology from falling into the wrong hands if its controllers at Creech Lake Air Force Base or the Tonopah Test Range, both in Nevada, lose contact with it.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration didn’t seriously consider bombing the wreckage or sending special operations forces into Iran to destroy or retrieve it because either would be an act of war, the two officials said.
The officials said that, depending on the real condition of the wreckage, Chinese or Russian access to the drone is a much greater concern than a possible Iranian effort to reverse-engineer the RQ-170, which they said is unlikely given the drone’s special coatings and other materials.