Ten Years Ago Iran Commandeered America’s Stealthiest Aircraft: The Greatest U.S. Tech Loss Since the Cold War?

Stealth technologies have been at the centre of American efforts to improve the survivability of future generations of its military aircraft since the late 1970, beginning with the F-117 Nighthawk radar evading strike fighter in the 1980s and today including ambitious and much more survivable sixth generation stealth fighters under the development. Stealth Aircraft have generally come into two categories: flying wing designs intended to evade not only tracking but even detection at all wavelengths, and standard fighter designs with radar cross-section reducing airframes such as the F-117, F-22 and F-35. Although the latter are difficult to gain weapons locks on, they can be detected relatively easily particularly by L-band radars. Flying wing designs include the B-2 Spirit strategic bomber, its upcoming replacement the B-21 Raider, and the Chinese H-20. While stealth aircraft have been neutralised on a number of occasions, most notably two F-117s over Yugoslavia in 1999, flying wing stealth jets have only been brought down at standoff ranges once. On December 5 2011 Iran managed not only to detect but also bring down America's latest flying wing stealth aircraft the Lockheed Martin RQ-170. 

The RQ-170 closely resembled the B-2 Spirit bomber that had entered service 10 years before it in 1997, but was more sophisticated and considerably smaller which contributed to a much lower radar cross section. The aircraft was designed for high-priority reconnaissance missions as a replacement to the fast but relatively non-stealthy SR-71 Blackbird which was retired in 1999. When entering service in 2007 it was very likely the stealthiest aircraft in the world, and was intended to fly deep into enemy airspace undetected for reconnaissance. In the early 2010s, preceeding the signing of the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s suspected development of nuclear weapons was a leading policy concern in the West. Reconnaissance over Iranian nuclear sites, which were heavily defended by various radar installations and F-14 Tomcat fighters, was thus assigned to the RQ-170, some of which reportedly operated from Afghanistan from 2007.  The aircraft had a relatively high endurance and is thought to have been equipped with an electro optical sensor suite and AESA radar.

On December 5 2011 an Iranian cyber warfare unit commandeered and RQ-170 deep in the country's airspace, although this was hotly disputed by Western sources claiming that the drone had been shot down by a kinetic weapon. Iran's ability to detect the drone, let alone form a lock sufficient to neutralise it, was unexpected considering how cutting edge the aircraft was. Controlling the drone and forcing it to land at an Iranian airbase was considerably more impressive still. Conflicting reports have indicated that Iran may have had support from China and used electronic warfare equipment from Belarus to neutralise the target. There was a significant possibility that Iran, having become aware of flights into its territory, had long planned an operation to acquire one of the aircraft. The U.S. responded to the loss of a valuable aircraft, which footage soon proved had landed intact in Iran, by requesting that Tehran return it. Iranian officials slammed the U.S. for violations of their airspace and refused, with Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi stating on December 13 that "Instead of apologising to the Iranian nation, it is brazenly asking for the drone back." The U.S. response was also controversial domestically, with the vice president under the proceeding administration, Dick Cheney, slamming the Obama administration's restraint and stating that the U.S. should have immediately destroyed the drain from the air to prevent its technologies is from being acquired by potential adversaries.

Western analysts were initially highly confident that Iran's defence sector was not sophisticated enough to benefit significantly from the RQ-170, despite announcement on December 10 that Iran intended to reverse engineer the aircraft. As it was the loss of the RQ-170 may well have been the most damaging U.S. loss of sensitive defence technologies to a hostile state since the end of the Cold War, with Iran not only unveiling drones from 2014 which were based on the design, but continuing to unveil new generations of sophisticated flying wing stealth drones and demonstrating their capabilities in combat conditions overseas. Perhaps the most notable example came in February 2018 when an Iranian surveillance drone derived from the RQ-170, likely the the Saegheh, was assigned a mission inside Israeli airspace. Former head of Mossad Danny Yatom stated regarding the incident: “It was a sophisticated operation. The UAV was almost an exact replica of the U.S. drone that fell in their territory. If it had exploded somewhere in Israel, it may not have been possible to identify it as an Iranian manufactured drone.” The drone reportedly evaded multiple Israeli attempts to neutralise it using U.S. made Patriot missile batteries using its stealth capabilities, forcing the Israeli Defence Force to deploy an attack helicopter to destroy it from within visual range using a gun where stealth was not effective. 

Iran has since unveiled the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191 flying wing drones capable of using precision guided weapons, which provide an effective means to compensate for the relative weakness of the country’s manned combat aircraft. Moreover, the potential remains high that technologies gained from the RQ-170, or even direct access to the drone, were given to  China, North Korea or other Iranian defence partners aligned against the U.S. Near the end of the decade China began to field its own flying wing stealth drones, most notable the GJ-11, which are expected to be much more capable than those in Iranian service or the original RQ-170. Russia, too, unveiled the Okhotnik stealth drone with a flying wing design which first flew in 2019 and could very well have benefitted from technology sharing with Iran, amid broader signs of cooperation in their drone programs.

Access to a state of the art stealth aircraft, which in 2011 no potential U.S. adversary would field for over five more years, was also potentially valuable to efforts to develop effective countermeasures, with Russia and Iran having cooperated to set up radar networks capable of detecting such aircraft by the end of the decade. The U.S., for its part, began to rely less on the RQ-170 and introduce its successor, the RQ-180, into service. Little is known regarding the new aircraft, but having been secretly funded through the Air Force’s classified budget it is speculated to also be capable of offensive electronic warfare. The loss of the RQ-170, however, did much to bridge the gap between the U.S. and its adversaries in both stealth and drone technologies meaning that the RQ-180’s primacy among flying wing drones today is far from certain. 

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