Iran–U.S. RQ-170 incident

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On 5 December 2011, an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was captured by Iranian forces near the city of Kashmar in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyberwarfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it, after initial reports from Western news sources disputedly claimed that it had been "shot down".[1] The United States government initially denied the claims but later President Obama acknowledged that the downed aircraft was a US drone.[2][3] Iran filed a complaint to the UN over the airspace violation. Obama asked Iran to return the drone. Iran is said to have produced drones based on the captured RQ-170 including the Shahed 171 Simorgh and Shahed Saegheh.

Capture of the drone[edit]

Images of the RQ-170 Sentinel taken from a US Army recognition manual

The government of Iran announced that the aircraft was brought down by its cyber warfare unit stationed near Kashmar and "brought down with minimum damage"[4] They said the aircraft was detected in Iranian airspace 225 kilometers (140 mi) from the border with Afghanistan.[5]

The government of the United States initially claimed that its forces in Afghanistan had lost control of a UAV on 4 December 2011 and that there was a possibility that this is the vehicle that crashed near Kashmar. According to unnamed U.S. officials, a U.S. UAV operated by the Central Intelligence Agency was flying on the Afghan side of the Afghanistan–Iran border when its operators lost control of the vehicle.[6][7] There have been reports that "foreign officials and American experts who have been briefed on the effort" state that the crashed UAV was taking part in routine surveillance of Iranian nuclear facilities inside Iranian airspace.[8]

The drone appeared to be largely intact, except for possible minor visible damage on its left wing. Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, stated the largely intact airframe ruled out the possibility of an engine or navigational malfunction: "Either this was a cyber/electronic warfare attack system that brought the system down or it was a glitch in the command-and-control system."[9] At least one US source admitted that Iran could have interrupted the data-link and brought it to a soft landing.[10] Some US officials stated the drone broke into three pieces during impact. They claimed that it was reassembled for display purposes and was painted by Iran to hide the damage.[11]

The U.S. Department of Defense released a statement acknowledging that it had lost control of a UAV during the previous week, claiming that it was "flying a mission over western Afghanistan" when control was lost. The statement did not specify the model of the aircraft. The U.S. government also stated that it was still investigating the cause of the loss.[12]

A Christian Science Monitor article relates an Iranian engineer's assertion that the drone was captured by jamming both satellite and land-originated control signals to the UAV, causing the UAV to fall back to GPS autopilot. Iran followed up by a GPS spoofing attack that fed the UAV false GPS data to make it land in Iran at what the drone thought was its home base in Afghanistan. Stephen Trimble from FlightGlobal assumes UAV guidance could have been targeted by 1L222 Avtobaza radar jamming and deception system supplied to Iran by Russia.[13] In an interview for Nova, U.S. retired Lt. General David Deptula also said "There was a problem with the aircraft and it landed in an area it wasn't supposed to land".[14][15]

American aeronautical engineers dispute this, pointing out that as is the case with the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper, and the Tomahawk, "GPS is not the primary navigation sensor for the RQ-170... The vehicle gets its flight path orders from an inertial navigation system".[16] Inertial navigation continues to be used on military aircraft despite the advent of GPS because GPS signal jamming and spoofing are relatively simple operations.[17]

US acknowledgement[edit]

On 5 December 2011, U.S. military sources confirmed that the remains of an RQ-170 had been captured by Iranian forces. Media reports indicated that various U.S. officials declined to confirm whether or not the drone in the video released by Iranian state television was authentic.[18] On 8 December 2011, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post that the U.S. cannot be certain the drone shown was real because the U.S. does not have access to it, but also stated that "We have no indication that it was brought down by hostile fire."[12] A second senior U.S. military official said that a major question is how the drone could have remained "virtually intact," given the high altitude from which it is said to have crashed. U.S. Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told a news conference on 8 December 2011 that Pentagon analysts were examining the video.[19] Both Kirby and fellow spokesman George Little would not comment further on whether the U.S. military believed the drone was the one missing, both did say that the missing drone had not been recovered.[19] Later that day, CBS reported that the US officials had confirmed in private the authenticity of the drone shown by the Iranians.[20]

On 6 December 2011, U.S. officials acknowledged that a drone crashed in or near Iranian airspace and that this belonged to the CIA and not to ISAF as was earlier stated. U.S. officials did not state that the drone shown on Iranian television was actually a real RQ-170 (which has been public knowledge since 2009),[21] although a former U.S. official confirmed that the drone shown on the Iranian state media was a U.S. RQ-170, used for surveillance of Tehran's nuclear facilities.[citation needed]

Complaint to UN Security Council[edit]

On 9 December 2011, Iran lodged a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council over the UAV violating its airspace. Iran's U.N. ambassador stated in the letter that "My government emphasizes that this blatant and unprovoked air violation by the United States government is tantamount to an act of hostility against the Islamic Republic of Iran in clear contravention of international law, in particular, the basic tenets of the United Nations Charter."[22]

Request for return by the United States[edit]

On 12 December 2011, the U.S. administration asked Iran to return the captured U.S. drone.[23] The day before, on 11 December, General Salami stated that "no nation welcomes other countries' spy drones in its territory, and no one sends back the spying equipment and its information back to the country of origin."[24] On 13 December 2011, Defence Minister of Iran, dismissed the request and said "Instead of apologising to the Iranian nation, it is brazenly asking for the drone back." And the ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, stated that "it seems he [Obama] has forgotten that Iran’s airspace was violated, spying operations were undertaken, international laws were violated and that Iran’s internal affairs were interfered with... . Instead of an official apology and admitting to this violation, they are making this request."[25]

Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Obama's decisions on the drone, saying that, after the aircraft went down, the president should have ordered an airstrike within Iran: "The right response to that would have been to go in immediately after it had gone down and destroy it. You can do that from the air ... and, in effect, make it impossible for them to benefit from having captured that drone." Instead, "he asked nicely for them to return it, and they aren't going to".[26]

On 17 January 2012, the Aaye Art Group, an Iranian company, said it would send miniature, toy versions of the captured drone to President Obama as a response to the request for sending the drone back.[27]

Reverse engineering of the drone[edit]

Iranian built copy of the RQ-170 in 2014.

On 10 December 2011, Iran announced that it intended to carry out reverse engineering on the captured RQ-170 Sentinel stealth aircraft.[citation needed] In April 2012, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed to have succeeded in extracting the entirety of the data collected by the drone and are currently in the process of building a replica of the aircraft.[28] Iran claimed to have been approached by countries, including China and Russia, seeking information on the drone.[29] Although U.S. officials expressed concern over the possibility of China or Russia receiving the drone's technology, they cast doubt on whether Iran could replicate the technology of the aircraft, as well as the amount of intelligence data available, due to the precautions installed for malfunctioning drones.[30]

In May 2014, Iranian state TV displayed what was claimed to be a reverse-engineered RQ-170. Sources familiar with the RQ-170's design say that the Iranian RQ-170 is merely a static mock-up rather than a flyable aircraft.[31] In November 2014 Iran claimed to have carried out a successful test flight of an aircraft based on reverse engineering of the RQ-170.[32]

The semi-official Tasnim news agency of Iran reported in September 2016 that a UAV named Sa'egheh, similar in appearance to the RQ-170 Sentinel, had been built. It was said to be able to carry four precision-guided bombs; the range was not stated.[33]

In 2016 Iran unveiled the Simorgh, designed after the RQ-170.[34]

The Israeli military shot down a Saegheh drone during the February 2018 Israel–Syria incident. Israeli media reported that the UAV's design was indeed largely based on the RQ-170, IAF Brigadier General Tomer Bar said that the drone was quite advanced and emulated Western technology.[35]

Decoded footage obtained from captured US drone[edit]

On 7 February 2013, Iran released video footage allegedly from the RQ-170 stealth plane. They claim the footage shows the drone coming in for a landing at the Kandahar base. Commander of the Aerospace Division of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh said that all the data on the downed drone was "fully decoded.".[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peterson, Scott; Faramarzi, Payam (2011). "Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer". Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  2. ^ Mungin, Lateef (22 October 2013). "Iran claims released footage is from downed U.S. drone". CNN.
  3. ^ "Obama says U.S. has asked Iran to return drone aircraft". CNN. CNN Wire Staff. 22 October 2013.
  4. ^ Maroney, Sean (9 December 2011). "Iranian Video Displays Alleged US Drone". Voice of America. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  5. ^ "Iran Says No To Returning U.S. Drone, But Hints At Deal". Radiofreeeurope/Radioliberty. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  6. ^ "Iran shows film of captured US drone". BBC News. 8 December 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  7. ^ U.S. officials, analysts differ on whether drone in Iran TV video is real. (8 December 2011) Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  8. ^ Shane, Scott; Sanger, David E (7 December 2011). "Drone Crash in Iran Reveals Secret U.S. Surveillance Effort". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  9. ^ Dave Majumdar (9 December 2011). "Iran's captured RQ-170: How bad is the damage?". Air Force Times.
  10. ^ Majumdar, Dave (12 May 2014). "Iranian Copy of U.S. Unmanned Stealth Aircraft is a Fake". USNI News.
  11. ^ "US official: Iran assembled drone like puzzle". Ynetnews. 17 December 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2014.
  12. ^ a b Jaffe, Greg; Erdbrink, Thomas (5 December 2011). "Iran says it downed U.S. stealth drone; Pentagon acknowledges aircraft downing". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  13. ^ "About the FlightGlobal Group - Blogs Announcement -".
  14. ^ Scott Peterson; Payam Faramarzi (15 December 2011). "Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer". Christian Science Monitor.
  15. ^ David A. Deptula, Lt. General, USAF (Retired) (23 January 2013). "Nova - Rise of the Drones". Event occurs at "0:37". Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  16. ^ Meade, Sean. "Ares". Aviation Week. Retrieved 24 August 2014.
  17. ^ "Iran Says It Will Display More Us & Israeli Drones". aviationintel. 16 December 2011. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  18. ^ Rick Gladstone (8 December 2011). "Iran Shows Video It Says Is of U.S. Drone". the New York Times.
  19. ^ a b "U.S. officials, analysts differ on whether drone in Iran TV video is real". CNN. 8 December 2011.
  20. ^ U.S. official: Iran does have our drone. CBS News (8 December 2011). Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  21. ^ "After drone was lost, CIA tried a head fake". The Washington Post. 6 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  22. ^ "General: Iran won't return U.S. drone it claims to have". CNN. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
  23. ^ "Obama appeals to Iran to give back downed US drone". The New York Times. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  24. ^ "General: Iran won't return U.S. drone it claims to have". CNN. 11 December 2011. Archived from the original on 12 December 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  25. ^ "Iran says captured US drone is their 'property' now". The Daily Telegraph. 13 December 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  26. ^ "Obama says the U.S. has asked Iran to return drone aircraft". CNN. 13 December 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  27. ^ Shirzad Bozorgmehr (18 January 2012). "Iranian company wants to send toy drone to Obama -". CNN. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  28. ^ "Iran says it has gleaned data from U.S. spy drone". San Francisco Chronicle. 22 April 2012. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  29. ^ "Russia, China seek info on US drone held by Iran". Fox News. 19 April 2012. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  30. ^ "Officials challenge Iran claims on US drone – despite concerns about value to Russia, China". Fox News. 23 April 2012.
  31. ^ "Iranian Copy of U.S. Unmanned Stealth Aircraft is a Fake". USNI News. 12 May 2014. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  32. ^ "Iran carries successful test flight of reverse-engineered RQ-170". 10 November 2014. Archived from the original on 10 November 2014. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  33. ^ "Iran builds attack drone similar to captured US model, local media say". The Guardian. 2 October 2016. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  34. ^ "Simorgh: Iran's Reproduced US Sentinel Spy Drone RQ-170 with Improved Features | Farsnews Agency". Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  35. ^ Gross, Judah Ari (10 February 2018). "Iranian UAV that entered Israeli airspace seems to be American stealth knock-off". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  36. ^ "Iran shows 'hacked US spy drone' video footage". BBC News. 7 February 2013.