The sleek winged craft wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Trek movie. But there was what appeared to be the CIA’s prized drone, dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar,” propped up on a display podium in Tehran with members of the Revolutionary Guards checking it out. A banner behind the stealth drone read “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to England.” And if that didn’t get the message across, another banner at the bottom of the podium read, “America can’t do a damn thing.”
If the video of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which aired on Iranian TV on Thursday, is accurate, there may not be much the U.S. can do now. The downed drone could turn out to be an intelligence bonanza for Iran, which has long touted its own budding drone program. But it’s not Iran alone that will benefit. Russia and China, who have supplied Iran with military equipment in the past, also have hit the jackpot and will likely get a look at one of the most sophisticated unmanned aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Russian and Chinese officials have already asked to inspect the drone, according to the Nasim Online news site.
That’s not all. Even Iran’s militant allies Hezbollah and Hamas may benefit from technology that is exploited from the drone. And that’s the kind of scenario that’s been worrying U.S. military commanders for a long time. “My worry would be [drone] capabilities...getting in the hands of nonstate actors who could use them for terrorist purposes,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Senate hearing last year.
For years, Iran’s drone program has been surrounded by a lot of official hype and fanfare. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled what he claimed to be a long-range unmanned bomber drone last year, calling it an “ambassador of death.” The Karrar, as the drone is officially known, is said to be able to carry two 250-pound bombs, and video footage released by the Iranian military at the time of the launch appeared to show the drone blasting a target with a missile. Many U.S. military officials aren’t convinced, claiming Iran’s drone capabilities are more flash than substance. Still, Iran has put its drones in action in sensitive areas. “On at least one occasion Iran flew a drone over a good chunk of Iraq,” a senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi government said in an interview last year. “The U.S. Air Force shot it down, recovered it, and ‘exploited’ it, turning it over to the Iraqi government. This was an Iranian-built device with still and video cameras.”
However rudimentary, Iran’s drone technology has already been shared with its allies. Hezbollah has flown a number of drones into Israeli airspace in recent years, including at least one during the 2006 war. So far, none of these drones appear to have been armed with missiles. But Israeli military officials have said in the past that Iran has passed on the technology and know-how for arming up drones both to Hezbollah and Hamas. Technology from the downed drone could improve the design of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by these militant groups and perhaps allow them to evade Israeli radar.
Breaking down the downed drone also could help Iran and its militant allies in defending against surveillance by UAVs. (It’s worth noting that the official Iranian narrative is that the armed forces were able to hack the drone and land it with minimal damage.) Drones have long been a regular feature of life for the residents of Gaza, as detailed in a recent Washington Post article. Gazans refer to the ubiquitous aircraft as zenana, a slang term for a nagging wife, and the steady buzz of Israeli drones also could be heard in southern Lebanon during the 2006 war.
If the Iranians are able to crack the alleged RQ-170’s stealth technology, it could lead to new techniques for hacking into other drones. Shiite militiamen allied with Iran were able to hack into U.S. Predator drones being flown over Iraq in recent years. Hezbollah also has repeatedly claimed to have hacked Israeli drones. Indeed, video footage from an Israeli drone was cited by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah last year as proof that Israel had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Regardless of what Iran is able to exploit from the downed drone, it’s clear that the incident has inflamed tensions with the U.S. The Iranian government filed an official complaint with the U.N. on Thursday about the CIA’s drone surveillance. And some Iranian politicians took it a step further. “We’re warning the international community,” Mohammad Kowsari, the deputy chief of the parliament’s national security commission, said in an interview with the semi-official Fars News agency. “The next time an American spy plane violates Iranian soil, the Americans will receive a horrific response.”