U.S. military officials have confirmed with NBC News and The Washington Post that the American drone recovered by Iran last Thursday was an advanced RQ-170 drone flying on a secret CIA mission. The U.S. military had previously suggested the drone was on a routine patrol "flying a mission over western Afghanistan." With the knowledge of the drone's model and which agency it was operating under, U.S. officials and military experts have begun weighing in on the national security secrets Iran may gain from the drone. (A U.S. official confirms with The Los Angeles Times that the downed drone was "largely intact.") Here are the major ones:
Knowledge of its stealth design This was no run-of-the-mill Predator or Reaper drone. The RQ-170 is one of the most advanced spy crafts in the U.S. fleet, partially because of its exterior design. "The RQ-170 has special coatings and a batwing shape designed to help it penetrate other nations’ air defenses undetected," reports Greg Miller at The Washington Post. Those coatings reportedly allow the drone to absorb radar waves when they come into contact with it and came in handy during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May when an RQ-170 drone hovered above the complex providing an aerial view of the mission.
Sensory technology The value of the drone's camera and sensor technology is subject to debate. Jim Miklaszewski at NBC News says sharing knowledge of the sensors is a "major concern" for military officials worried that Iran could develop the technology for themselves. Giving credence to the sophistication of the technology, The Los Angeles Times' W.J. Hennigan, David Cloud and Ken Dilanian say the drone's "capabilities remain largely classified, it is believed to carry the latest in cutting-edge cameras and sensors that can 'listen in' on cellphone conversations as it soars miles above the ground or 'smell' the air and sniff out chemical plumes emanating from a potential underground nuclear laboratory."
However, Bill Sweetman and Dave Dulghum at Aviation Week say the drone's sensors are over-rated. “Systems now moving into an operational role are scores of times more effective than the Sentinel’s full-motion video (FMV), assuming that technology has not been significantly upgraded or replaced covertly," they said. “Now, the single-sensor capability is being multiplied by 65 times, resulting in an exponential increase in data.”
How to shoot down future drones On Monday, Greg Jaffe and Thomas Erdbrink at The Washington Post reported that if an RQ-170 was recovered, it could help them locate and shoot down other U.S. drones. "The aircraft could help the Iranians better understand the vulnerabilities of U.S. stealth technology and provide them with clues on how to spot other aircraft," a U.S. officials told them.
Sharing the technology with China and Russia Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, robotic warfare expert Peter W. Singer says the drone "carries a variety of systems that wouldn't be much of a benefit to Iran, but to its allies such as China and Russia, it's a potential gold mine." Forecasting the liklihood that Iran would share the information with America's rivals, A U.S. official tells the Times, "It's bad — they'll have everything" referring to the military technology. "And the Chinese or the Russians will have it too."