Don't Hold Your Breath for Iran's Copycat Drones

Iran has vowed to "mass produce" the high-tech U.S. drone it recovered two weeks ago but defense experts are laughing the claim out of the room. 


This article is from the archive of our partner .

Iran has vowed to "mass produce" the high-tech U.S. drone it recovered two weeks ago but defense experts are laughing the claim out of the room.

Parviz Sorouri, the head of Iran's parliamentary national security committee, said Monday his country was "in the final stages" of demystifying  the RQ-170 Sentinel drone's software, according to a report on Iranian state TV's website. "In the near future, we will be able to mass produce it.... Iranian engineers will soon build an aircraft superior to the American (drone) using reverse-engineering," he said.

Though defense experts and robotics professionals disagree widely on the danger posed by Iran obtaining the sophisticated drone, very few can imagine the result will be replication, much more improvement, of the Lockheed Martin drone. The reasons vary.

For Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, speaking with Defense News, the important factor is Iran not having the manufacturing know-how to build such a craft—something that can't be understood by simply finding a machine. "From a secrecy standpoint, it's like dropping a Ferrari into an ox-cart technology culture," Aboulafia said. "The mission systems are likely to be too encrypted to be of use to anyone." He added that even gaining knowledge of the stealth airframe is not a big deal. "There is so much more to stealth than the airframe."

But even talking about the possibility of reproduction may be getting ahead of ourselves. According to two unmanned aerial vehicle designers speaking with Wired, even dissecting the RQ-170 is above Iran's pay grade. "Iran will probably need help from arms exporters Russia and China in breaking down the flying-wing unmanned aerial vehicle." The experts say the Chinese and Russians could have some success dismantling the drone, but manufacturing it is a distant prospect. "[They] will probably try to figure out the 'recipe' for the RQ-170′s alloys and non-metal composites, which help minimize the drone’s radar signature, as does its bat-like shape [but] that’s where reverse-engineering starts to get complicated." The experts say it's likely the composition of the craft can be cracked "but producing them is entirely a different matter.”

Then there's the fact that Iran likely already knew a good deal about the drone's radar technology, notes Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "I don't think this is a dagger pointed at the heart of democracy," he said to the L.A. Times.  "A lot of information about this aircraft was already known by foreign military intelligence officials." John Pike, director of, agrees. "The cat's already out of the bag with stealth technology."

One of the most-widely cited experts on the drone's capacity to reveal dangerous secrets is Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution. He's been quoted in Time magazine and The Los Angeles Times as the expert doomsayer, explaining that Iran just recovered a "jewel," adding "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."

Still, if one reads his longer article on the Brookings Institution website, he concurs with the others that while Iran could most definitely gain from this technology (particular the highly sophisticated sensors), reproducing it is mostly out of the question. "Our downed plane is not a system they have the technical savvy or manufacturing base to reverse engineer in a major way, nor is it a system that makes up what we would use in a major armed strike against them. We still can do that if we so wanted."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.