Warplanes: Mysteries Within Mysteries Within Iran

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March 15, 2018: On February 10th Israel shot down an Iranian Shahed 171 jet powered UAV after it crossed the Israeli-Jordanian border flying at a very low altitude. The Israelis say they tracked the Shahed 171 as it left an Iranian base in central Syria and were able to intercept and shoot it down using an AH-64 helicopter gunship. Israel provided video of the missile hitting the Shahed 171 and later displayed pieces of the wreckage on TV. Before this Iran had never put UAVs like this into a combat zone, much used them to try and fly over Israel. Previously it was unclear if UAVs like this actually existed outside of mockups or altered digital photos.

The last time the Shahed 171 was seen was in late 2016 when Iranian TV showed video of a factory producing clones of the American RQ-170 UAV that crash-landed in Iran during 2011. The video showed 13 of the Iranian clones in a factory-type building. But the 13 UAVs represented three different variations on the original. Two of these appeared to be prototypes of a jet powered RQ-170 (Shahed 171). The other eleven UAVs had the distinctive shape of the RQ-170 but appeared to be designed to use a pusher type propeller in the rear. All this appeared to be another propaganda event, for domestic consumption and to confuse or simply annoy foreigners. Now Israel has one of these Shahed 171s, although not intact. But the way these situations are handled Israeli and American technical personnel are reassembling the Shahed 171 and comparing notes on what the RQ-170 can actually do and what the Shahed 171 appears capable of. The Israeli’s probably already knows a lot about the Shahed 171 and admitted they were able to track this “stealthy” UAV over Syria but won’t say how or how well. Iran has no comment.

This all began in late 2011 when Iran displayed what appeared to be an American RQ-170 jet powered UAV, which they claimed had landed intact in Iran two weeks earlier. Iran claimed they had hijacked the control signals for the RQ-170 and landed it themselves. This seemed highly unlikely but not impossible. Experts on Iranian military technology immediately suspected something else. First, the Iranians are constantly lying about their military exploits, especially when it comes to developing new weapons and technology. This is apparently done mainly for domestic propaganda as satellite photos never show more than a few prototypes of these wonder-weapons. Then many Americans familiar with the RQ-170 carefully studied the pictures of the "captured" RQ-170 and immediately suspected something was off. For one thing, the RQ-170 shown was the right size and shape but the wrong color. Not just a different color from that seen on many photos of the RQ-170s in Afghanistan but also a color unknown in American military service. A closer examination of the Iranian RQ-170 photos indicated that the Iranians had reassembled an RQ-170 that had crashed and broken into three or more pieces. Then the Iranians apparently gave the UAV a new paint job (which was obvious to anyone seeing those photos.) It was later discovered that the RQ-170 pancaked as it landed, largely destroying the front of the aircraft but otherwise intact.

What actually happened to the RQ-170 was that the American operators of the UAV lost the satellite signal connection with the RQ-170 and the aircraft eventually crashed. There was no indication of Iranians jamming the satellite signal. Iran has jammed satellite signals before, but only with wide area entertainment programming, not encrypted UAV control signals. Thus many mysteries remain but some have been cleared up because the Iranians could not resist creating a photo opportunity.

The RQ-170 first showed up in Afghanistan and South Korea in 2009. The U.S. Air Force then admitted that this was a high altitude reconnaissance UAV developed in secret by Lockheed-Martin during the previous decade. It has a 20 meter (65.5 feet) wingspan and is 4.5 meters (17.7 feet) long. The RQ-170 is believed to be a replacement for some of the U-2s and a supplemental aircraft for the larger Global Hawk (which has a 42 meter wingspan.) RQ-170s have been operating over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran since 2010. Only about 20 have been built and they have never been armed, only used for high-altitude reconnaissance.

Exactly why this UAV came down, and how damaging the loss of aircraft and sensor technology is, won't be known for years. Losses like this have occurred for decades and do have an impact. For example, U.S. cruise missiles that crashed in Pakistan (on their way to Afghanistan) in the 1990s clearly influenced the design of a subsequent Pakistani cruise missile. American warplanes that crashed in North Vietnam during the 1960s provided some tech for China and Russia, but nothing decisive.

Meanwhile development of the RQ-170 went on. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that a long rumored RQ-180 UAV did indeed exist and was still in development. The RQ-180 is a large (over 12 tons) and stealthy UAV designed to survive in heavily defended air space. The earlier RQ-170 is a similar, but smaller, version of the same basic design. RQ-170s were also suspected as being the basis for a larger and stealthier UAV and this is now revealed to be the RQ-180.

Both the RQ-170 and RQ-180 are jet propelled UAVs employing a flying wing design, similar to the X-45s and X-47s built as development aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were built to carry weapons while the similar looking reconnaissance UAVs just carry sensors internally. The RQ-170 and RQ-180 are purely reconnaissance aircraft. The RQ-170 weighs about six tons while the larger RQ-180 weighs at least twice as much. Endurance of the RQ-170 is about six hours while the RQ-180 can stay up three to four times longer. The RQ-180 also carries more capable sensors, apparently some of the ones used in the 14 ton RQ-4 Global Hawk. Some RQ-180s have been put into service but only a few have been built so far.

 


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