Captured U.S. stealthy drone in Iran: the simplest solution solves the mystery

The solution to the mystery of the capture of the U.S. (once) most secret drone could be much simpler than everyone has speculated so far.

Today’s post on the topic will in fact provide some new theories emerged during the last days and a quite simple one that could explain various oddities of the story of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel captured by Iran on Dec. 4, 2011.

Let’s start from the latter.

It comes from the Iranian physician, blogger and political activist Dr Mehdi Khazali, who is also one of the strongest critics of the government of Tehran.

As pointed out by some visitors of the site, he has deleted a report he had published in the aftermath of the “downing” of the drone, in which he explained that the U.S. drone crash landed unnoticed by anyone in the desert and was spotted some days later by sheep-keepers who were afraid to get closer so they reported the airplane’s presence to the police that reported it to the Revolutionary Guard.

Obviously, upon arrival on the scene, the IRG seized all mobile phones from people who had recorded films of the American spy-robot.

He has deleted his report from his website but the original post is still available on Google cache and answering to viewers’ questions about deleting the post about the U.S. drone, he said that he has been pushed to delete them because of Iran National Security Issues.

Summing up: the stealth drone, undetected by any radar crash lands in an uninhabited area in the Iranian desert. The cause of the crash could have been an unknown failure that the U.S. are unable to determine because the drone has crashed in an unknown location making a recovery or destruction mission impossible.

At the beginning, the U.S. decide not to disclose the information because the robot may have crashed in the mountains, where no one will ever find it, or have suffered extensive damage that will make it useless in the hands of the Iranian analysts. And, by giving the news, they would admit they have undertaken spy missions in the Iranian airspace, thus confirming they have joined Israel in the covert war on the Iranian nuclear program.

However, a shepherd finds it almost intact and the news spreads, forcing the U.S. to admit the loss. Iran has the great opportunity to show it and to make some propaganda “advertising” some of their (most probably existing) capabilities in the Electronic and Cyber Warfare fields.

In conclusion: the CIA has lost its most secret drone behind the enemy lines and it has survived the crash landing; Iran has been given an unexpected gift that can be used to study and reverse engineer the U.S. technology.

Needless to say, this is just one of many theories that have emerged since the drone’s first pictures appeared on Iran’s State TV as the “Beast of Kandahar” was showcased in a school’s gymnasium. Quite simple, not involving any jamming, GPS spoofing, satellite-link encryption breaking and control link spoofing. While acknowledging the skills and progress in these fields of the Iranians, and the vulnerabilities of the U.S. drones, some of them were a bit far fetched.

We should also not forget that any army capable to detect a drone, because it is using a Syntetic Aperture Radar, with Infrared, visually spotted, or because it always flies the same route, would probably try to down it first with an interceptor or a surface to air missile than dare to take over control of it.

Ok, now let’s get back to the last post about the mysterious hatch, that among other things (speculation on!) could have been used for a recovery chute.

According to Bernhard “b”, those lines along the access hatches could be tape.

“That would explain the not very straight lines and the “wheel grinder cut mark” which isn’t one. We do know that on the B-2 as well as on the F-22 radar absorbing tape is used to mask any gap at the seem of access hatches” he commented.

“In the original B-2 design, specially formulated tapes and caulks were used to cover gaps on the surface such as those near maintenance access panels. These materials have to be removed each time maintenance is performed, then reapplied and allowed to cure before the aircraft can be returned to service” he added mentioning the following website.

Another visitor, Jaime Maia, provided a possible explaination to the  wavering and other artifacts of the close up picture of the hatch: “if it was grabbed from a video, they would be produced by Discrete Cosine Transform of the image compression algorithm.”

That said, I still believe the drone is real and not fake. Maybe it was repaired or cleaned (and probably the hatch has nothing to do with a recovery chute) but I think it’s authentic. In addition President Obama has requested it to be returned.

However many experts, aviation enthusiasts and journos don’t agree with me.

Mark McGrath, a military aviation photographer, believes “the drone in Iran is a 1:1 scale fibreglass replica of an RQ-170, which is unpainted hence the colour difference. The Iranians say they have captured other US & Israeli drones – this may or may not be true, but the US may want to investigate how capable the Iranian EW is with a view to developing countermeasures & jamming for it. They build a replica drone that they know will be “lost” over Iran & fit it out with some sensors that relay the EW attack on it to a real drone over Afghanistan.”

A bit excessive, as Mark admits, but the secret operation in Pakistan involving special forces and a brand new stealthy chopper, has already proved that reality can be stranger than fiction.

Update Dec. 19 23.29GMT

I forgot to add a detail about the story recalled by Kazhali. He says that weapons were found on the drone. Since we know the RQ-170 is unarmed, unless we assume a sensor was reported by someone as a bomb, this detail seems to discredit the Iranian blogger’s story.

However, two new pictures published on Dec. 2011 issue of Combat Aircraft before the drone was “downed”, show a new kind of sensor under the fuselage and the evidence of a ventral weapons bay.
Now connect the dots: the recent mysterious blasts in nuclear sites in Iran and a bomb carried by a stealth drone… Intriguing but unlikely, since Iran would let the world see the PGM if the drone carried it.

Stay tuned.

This, along with all the previous articles on the Sentinel drone in Iran, can be found at the following link (click and scroll down):


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.