Iranian officials have crowed they are mining "priceless technological information" from a CIA spy drone that went down days ago inside Iran's borders, broadcasting triumphant images of what they said was the craft on state TV.
But many experts say the loss of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone — like the U-2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 — may have more value as propaganda than as a treasure trove of technological secrets.
"Even if the Iranians have possession of a drone, that doesn't mean they will be able to exploit its technology," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based military and security think tank.
Iran says its technicians will use "reverse engineering" to produce an Iranian version, and that Russia and China are both vying to inspect the so-called unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. The U.S. says the drone went down because of a malfunction and has urged Iran to return it, which Iran has refused to do.
Thompson says countries such as Russia and China already have a fair understanding of the basic principles of stealth technology: the use of radar-absorbing materials and of computers to fly the inherently unstable craft. It's learning how to track stealth aircraft that remains the hardest part of the equation, he says.
"It's not clear that they or any other adversaries we might face in the future will be materially advantaged in terms of being able to counter the stealth," Thompson says. "It's just intrinsically hard to track using radar."
Not So Cutting Edge?
The Sentinel also might not necessarily represent the most cutting-edge technology because such systems can take years from inception until they are operationally viable, says Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
In addition, defense planners likely took into account that the Sentinel would be operating in hostile territory and might fall into enemy hands, Donnelly says.
He says that's the same reason why U.S. military planners are careful about using more sophisticated military hardware, such as the F-22 Raptor, which also has stealth capabilities, for combat patrols over Afghanistan.
"It's a capability that is excessive for the mission," Donnelly says. "You save the crown jewels for when you really need them. The RQ-170 probably falls someplace in the middle of our technological capabilities."
When an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was shot down over Serbia in 1999, it was feared to be an "unmitigated disaster," says Jonathan Reed Winkler, a professor at Wright State University who specializes in foreign relations and military history.
But Winkler points out that the U.S. military had already been flying the craft for nearly two decades.
"These particular military technologies are not the most cutting edge. They are simply the ones that are operationally useful, and so are out in the field," he says.
Even so, suspicion persists that Beijing either temporarily acquired or at least got to study the F-117 wreckage and then used the information to help build a prototype stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20. More recently, pieces of a U.S. stealth helicopter used in the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden were left behind in Pakistan despite attempts to blow up the wreckage. China has denied reports that Pakistan allowed it to examine the wreckage.
The Propaganda Payoff
Donnelly says there's no doubt that the Chinese and the Russians will be interested in getting a good look at the Sentinel, but "there's no single element to the technology that is the silver bullet."
"It's the software interfacing with control surfaces of the aircraft, which are made out of increasingly exotic materials, which require special manufacturing techniques and engineering skills — all of these things are the result of decades and decades of effort and a heck of a lot of money," he says.
The propaganda payoff, however, is immediate.
When the Soviets downed the U-2 spy plane and paraded its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, before the TV cameras, it was seen as a major propaganda victory. The Eisenhower administration had consistently denied that it had been conducting high-altitude missions to get a handle on the USSR's missile capabilities, and the U-2 incident proved that it had been lying.
The plane itself was of little real value, being merely "a glider with cameras," says Dik Daso, a curator and aviation historian at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
"The real value in shooting down something like the U-2 or the F-117 is in showing that something that had been untouchable isn't," Daso says.
The Pueblo Crisis
By contrast, the 1968 capture of the American surveillance ship USS Pueblo by North Korea was a true intelligence and diplomatic disaster.
The lightly armed Pueblo was on a mission to listen in on North Korean communications when it was boarded and commandeered, says Mitch Lerner, author of The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy.
"The sophisticated radio gear and the cryptology that got into Soviet hands via the North Koreans was a significant loss," he says
The propaganda coup was even greater. North Korea held the entire crew — more than 80 Americans — for nearly a year before they were forced to sign confessions of espionage and released, Lerner says. To this day, North Korea is still mining the Pueblo for propaganda purposes, having turned the ship into a sort of floating museum outside Wonsan Harbor that was later moved to Pyongyang.
Unlike the U-2 and Pueblo incidents, the pilotless Sentinel had no crew to detain. But much like with the U-2, Tehran may find that the captured drone's greatest value is as evidence to bolster its claims that the CIA is conducting surveillance flights over Iran, the AEI's Donnelly says.
"In these days of YouTube, the Iranians have already probably gotten the maximum propaganda value out of showing this off on TV to the world," he says.