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What could Iran learn from the “Beast of Kandahar”?

The Iranian media reported today, and U.S. officials are now confirming, that a U.S. stealth spy drone was shot down over Iran. The Iranians claim the drone sustained only minor damage. The top-secret RQ-170, which reportedly played a role in monitoring Osama bin Laden’s compound, was nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Aviation Week editor ...

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The Iranian media reported today, and U.S. officials are now confirming, that a U.S. stealth spy drone was shot down over Iran. The Iranians claim the drone sustained only minor damage.

The top-secret RQ-170, which reportedly played a role in monitoring Osama bin Laden’s compound, was nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Aviation Week editor Bill Sweetman when photos of it first emerged in the media in 2009. There are unconfirmed reports that the drone has been regularly used over Iran monitoring the country’s nuclear program.

I spoke briefly with Sweetman today about the significance of the drone, which he says may already be obsolete:  

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What made the RQ-170 so cutting edge?

When it entered service a few years ago it was actually the only operational stealth drone that we had. There may well be others, but they’re kept more under wraps.

Just the fact that this thing was out and allowed to tumble around a very busy airbase in broad daylight indicated that although this thing was secret, what’s secret about it wasn’t its shape. It wasn’t covered up the way things at Groom Lake are covered up.

There are little tell-tale things like the shape of the leading edge and the shape of the landing gears that indicate that this wasn’t really an ultra-stealthy thing. Looking at it and talking to people about it, after a while you came to the idea that what’s important here is more what it’s doing that’s secret than what it’s actual capabilities are.

Do we have any sense of what that might be?

I think it likely started off as a platform for an experimental sensor of some kind, which probably has something to do with those strange bulges on the upper surface. Having been around for a while, it’s probably been adapted to other things. It probably has an optical sensor on it.

My impression is that this is something that has been built in small numbers, and certainly there are more capable staffed drones in the pipeline behind it, even there aren’t some already existing in the black world.

So what can these newer drones do that the RQ-170 can’t?

Probably two things. One is lower [radar] signatures.  The other would be the capability to carry other types of sensors, including radar, and possibly weapons as well. This thing is quite small. That gives you limitations in a couple of areas,  including quite simply how big a camera you can put on it. If you want images of a certain resolution, you still need the optics. It also doesn’t have a lot of electrical power available if you want to run radar.

When you go to stealth with a UAV, it’s not quite the same as putting it on a manned aircraft. On a piloted aircraft, you’re going to have sensors on board that tell the pilot when he’s being illuminated by radar. So it has a sort of responsive capability. With a simple UAV like this, you’re really flying a course based on where you think the other guys radars are, and trying to avoid the peak signature, trying to keep it off the other guys radar.

If you really want a stealthy drone, you need to achieve as low a signature as possible all around. Future stealth drones will have much better signature. Look at the Northrop X-47 they’ve just flown for the Navy: If you look at that shape versus the RQ-170, you’ll notice that its edges are a lot sharper, that the RQ-170 is a little more rounded around the nose.

But again, if you’re building a simple aircraft, you don’t necessarily want to put all the latest on there, because sooner or later you know it’s going to go down somewhere.

So if it turns out to be true that the RQ-170 has fallen into Iranian hands, how big an intelligence coup is that for them?

I shouldn’t think so. Under the skin, this is a fairly simple airplane. I doubt if there’s anything radical in terms of reconnaissance equipment on board. There aren’t that many examples of a huge intelligence haul of that kind coming from one particular aircraft.

For more, see Sweetman’s latest piece on why the intelligence gained from the RQ-170 may be limited. We’ll keep following this story as well.

Photos: Secret Defense via Aviation Week

The Iranian media reported today, and U.S. officials are now confirming, that a U.S. stealth spy drone was shot down over Iran. The Iranians claim the drone sustained only minor damage.

The top-secret RQ-170, which reportedly played a role in monitoring Osama bin Laden’s compound, was nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Aviation Week editor Bill Sweetman when photos of it first emerged in the media in 2009. There are unconfirmed reports that the drone has been regularly used over Iran monitoring the country’s nuclear program.

I spoke briefly with Sweetman today about the significance of the drone, which he says may already be obsolete:  

What made the RQ-170 so cutting edge?

When it entered service a few years ago it was actually the only operational stealth drone that we had. There may well be others, but they’re kept more under wraps.

Just the fact that this thing was out and allowed to tumble around a very busy airbase in broad daylight indicated that although this thing was secret, what’s secret about it wasn’t its shape. It wasn’t covered up the way things at Groom Lake are covered up.

There are little tell-tale things like the shape of the leading edge and the shape of the landing gears that indicate that this wasn’t really an ultra-stealthy thing. Looking at it and talking to people about it, after a while you came to the idea that what’s important here is more what it’s doing that’s secret than what it’s actual capabilities are.

Do we have any sense of what that might be?

I think it likely started off as a platform for an experimental sensor of some kind, which probably has something to do with those strange bulges on the upper surface. Having been around for a while, it’s probably been adapted to other things. It probably has an optical sensor on it.

My impression is that this is something that has been built in small numbers, and certainly there are more capable staffed drones in the pipeline behind it, even there aren’t some already existing in the black world.

So what can these newer drones do that the RQ-170 can’t?

Probably two things. One is lower [radar] signatures.  The other would be the capability to carry other types of sensors, including radar, and possibly weapons as well. This thing is quite small. That gives you limitations in a couple of areas,  including quite simply how big a camera you can put on it. If you want images of a certain resolution, you still need the optics. It also doesn’t have a lot of electrical power available if you want to run radar.

When you go to stealth with a UAV, it’s not quite the same as putting it on a manned aircraft. On a piloted aircraft, you’re going to have sensors on board that tell the pilot when he’s being illuminated by radar. So it has a sort of responsive capability. With a simple UAV like this, you’re really flying a course based on where you think the other guys radars are, and trying to avoid the peak signature, trying to keep it off the other guys radar.

If you really want a stealthy drone, you need to achieve as low a signature as possible all around. Future stealth drones will have much better signature. Look at the Northrop X-47 they’ve just flown for the Navy: If you look at that shape versus the RQ-170, you’ll notice that its edges are a lot sharper, that the RQ-170 is a little more rounded around the nose.

But again, if you’re building a simple aircraft, you don’t necessarily want to put all the latest on there, because sooner or later you know it’s going to go down somewhere.

So if it turns out to be true that the RQ-170 has fallen into Iranian hands, how big an intelligence coup is that for them?

I shouldn’t think so. Under the skin, this is a fairly simple airplane. I doubt if there’s anything radical in terms of reconnaissance equipment on board. There aren’t that many examples of a huge intelligence haul of that kind coming from one particular aircraft.

For more, see Sweetman’s latest piece on why the intelligence gained from the RQ-170 may be limited. We’ll keep following this story as well.

Photos: Secret Defense via Aviation Week

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: Iran

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