WASHINGTON — Tehran’s capture of a largely intact, top secret U.S. drone, which it displayed on state television, not only lays bare America’s surveillance program over Iran, but it also puts sensitive, advanced technology in hostile hands.
A former U.S. official confirmed that the beige-colored drone featured in the more than two-minute video aired Thursday was indeed an RQ-170 Sentinel that is used for surveillance of Tehran’s nuclear facilities. The U.S. military said it lost control of a drone earlier this week.
Iranian officials quickly claimed their military forces had downed the Sentinel with an electronic attack. But U.S. officials on Thursday flatly rejected the claim that any cyber or other electronic related activity was responsible for the loss of the drone.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone mission is classified.
The video, which showed Iranian officials examining the drone, provided the first real evidence of the Sentinel’s capture. More important, it revealed the aircraft to be nearly in one piece.
That alone confirmed experts’ contention that the classified aircraft can be programmed to land safely if its communications link is lost.
Robotics expert Peter Singer, who has written about the use of drones in war, said the Sentinel is programmed to circle in the air or land if its communications link is lost. Until the video came out, U.S. officials and other experts were suggesting the drone may have crashed, leaving Iran with only scattered pieces.
Pentagon officials on Thursday refused to comment on the drone, saying they do not talk about classified surveillance programs.
The episode, however, could be a serious setback for what has been an escalating surveillance program, aimed largely at Iran’s nuclear facilities, that has gone on for years from a U.S. air base in Afghanistan and other bases in the region.
It gives the Iranians the opportunity to share or sell the drone to others, such as the Chinese and Russians, who might be better able to exploit any technological information gleaned from examining it.
U.S. officials are concerned that others may be able to reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint or the aircraft’s sophisticated optics technology that allows operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air.
Adversaries also might be able to hack into the drone’s database, although it is not clear whether they would be able to recover any data. Some surveillance technologies allow video to stream through to operators on the ground but do not store much collected data. If they do, it is encrypted.
Singer, of the Brookings Institution, said that while some of the mechanics of the aircraft are well known, some aspects — especially its sensors — would be important to countries like China.
“This is the jewel for them now,” Singer said. “It depends on what was on the plane on this mission, but one sensor it has carried in the past is an AESA radar. This is a very advanced radar that really is a difference maker for our next generation of planes, not just drones, but also manned ones like F-22s and F-35s.”
While it’s not news that the U.S. spies on Iran, or that Iran knows it, the incident comes at a particularly sensitive time as the U.S. and other nations push for stronger sanctions against Tehran to stifle its nuclear ambitions.
The incident also could complicate U.S. relations with Afghanistan, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now with the Brookings Institution.
“This crash suddenly puts Afghanistan into the Iran crisis, which will make (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai very nervous and worried,” said Riedel, who has advised the Obama White House on Afghanistan. “He is already a proxy in a war with Pakistan. Now he is a proxy in a covert war with Iran the Afghan people knew nothing about.”
On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to protest the drone’s “invasion” of Iranian airspace, according to state TV. It said the ministry demanded an explanation and compensation from Washington.
The U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, and Switzerland represents American interests in Iran.
Instead, Iran called on the United Nations to condemn “the provocative and covert operations” that it said have increased and intensified in recent months.
In a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, said his government considered the spy flight “tantamount to an act of hostility” and “violations and acts of aggression.” He further warned “against the destructive consequences of the recurrence of such acts.”
Iran is locked in a dispute with the U.S. and its allies over Tehran’s nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusations, saying its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and that it seeks to generate electricity and produce isotopes to treat medical patients.
Iran confirmed for the first time in 2005 that the U.S. has been flying surveillance drones over its airspace to spy on its military and nuclear facilities.
In January, Tehran said two pilotless spy planes shot down over its airspace were operated by the U.S., and in July, media said Iranian military officials showed Russian experts several U.S. drones reportedly shot down in recent years.
This latest incident, however, gives Tehran a volatile propaganda tool.
In the video, Tehran displayed a banner at the foot of the drone that read “The U.S. cannot do a damn thing” — a quotation from Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini. Another banner was printed to look like the American flag, but had skulls instead of stars.
Iranian state radio has said the unmanned aircraft was detected over the eastern town of Kashmar, some 140 miles from the border with Afghanistan.
The Sentinel, made by Lockheed Martin, has been used in Afghanistan for years. It gained notoriety earlier this year when officials disclosed that one was used to keep watch on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan as the raid that killed him was taking place.