by DAVID AXE
“Something is really amiss here,” the engineer says. It has been around a week since the U.S. admitted it lost contact with an RQ-170 Sentinel Unmanned Aerial Vehicle over the Iran-Afghanistan border — and two days since Tehran showed off pictures and videos purporting to show the secretive Sentinel mostly intact and being inspected by Iranian officers.
The stealthy Sentinel, built in small numbers in the early 2000s by Lockheed Martin, was most likely looking for evidence of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency, analysts said.
The images seemed to corroborate Tehran’s narrative: that it used electronic jamming to force the RQ-170 down while the bat-shaped craft was spying on Iranian facilities, and now Iranian engineers will disassemble the intact drone to learn its secrets. Given the drone’s apparently excellent condition, “there is the potential for reverse engineering, clearly,” U.S. Air Force Chief Gen. Norton Schwartz confessed.
But one American drone engineer is skeptical. The engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, worked on the Boeing X-45, a contemporary of the RQ-170. The X-45 came in two versions: the early “A” model and the larger “C” later on. In the early 2000s, Northrop Grumman also came out with a flying-wing-shaped UAV, the X-47. The X-45 and X-47 are strictly experimental.
For starters, the engineer questions how the Iranians could possess a mostly undamaged Sentinel, when all large U.S. drones are equipped with multiple self-destruct systems. “On the X-45A and C, we went to considerable lengths to have that capability — both commanded and autonomous. On the X-45A it was executed by blowing the wings off. This was mainly a consideration for flying at Edwards [Air Force Base in California] as that was the preferred method there, as opposed to simply making a hole in the ground.”
“In the X-45C there would be two systems, but both resulted in the aircraft flying as vertically down as possible to minimize collateral damage and to maximize the G forces on the aircraft,” the engineer continues. “Operationally and away from Edwards there was demand for less risk in dealing with explosive bolts — or whatever means you would need to have to blow the wings off — so simply screwing into the ground was going to be the [standard procedure].”
There were two ways to active the self-destruct, the engineer adds. One was by command. The other began automatically if the drone had lost contact with its operators on the ground and had traveled a given distance on its own, begun to fly erratically or had run out of fuel. The automated self-destruct required no human intervention. “This whole feature wasn’t an extra Boeing invention, but the Pentagon required it as part of the physical security plan for the system,” the engineer says. “It was a very big deal.”
The RQ-170 almost certainly came equipped with similar, if not identical, self-destruct systems. So how is it that the Iranians came into possession of an undamaged Sentinel?
It’s possible they didn’t — and that the craft depicted in the photos and videos is a replica designed for propaganda purposes. Iran has a long history of creating fake weaponry to show off during parades. The Pentagon declined to comment directly on the images.
“Looking at the photos, the [UAV’s] surface doesn’t look right,” the engineer says. “Besides no damage to speak of, the seams and joints don’t look right for [stealthy] surface treatment. Signature would have been crap. Hard to think they built a fake in a couple of days,” the engineer admits, “but then we had a surfboard-maker in California make a full size X-45C that looked like the real one — and he did it in a few days, start to finish.”