Captured Sentinel
Captured SentinelScreenshot

Iran has unveiled a copy of the US Lockheed Martin Sentinel RQ-170 drone which it downed in 2011. The copycat aircraft is due to take test flights soon, officials said at the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council's Aerospace Exhibition.

Israel's air force only recently held maneuvers designed to deal with a sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) threat, possibly involving UAVs that have never yet been used against Israel. It is not known if the two developments are related.

The reverse-engineered drone manufactured by Iran was showcased next to the original US machine that was captured in northeastern Iran near the city of Kashmar about three years ago.

The exhibition, attended by the “Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution,” Ayatollah Khamenei, revealed the Iranian UAV equipped with an advanced system of data collection, video and radar telecom, Fars reports.

“Our engineers succeeded in breaking the drone’s secrets and copying them. It will soon take a test flight,” an officer said in the footage broadcast on Iranian TV. “This drone is very important for reconnaissance missions,” Khamenei said as he viewed the drone.

The original Sentinel RQ-170 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was used in US covert operations in Afghanistan from 2005 until 2007, according to the report. One of the important features of the drone is that it is hard to detect with long range radar due to its special stealth coating, making it visible only from a distance of around 40 kilometers.

In December 2011, Iran claimed to have captured it flying over Iran, which the US military acknowledged. Washington filed a formal request for Iran to return the UAV, which Iran rejected instead demanded an apology for US intelligence operation over its territory.

Although US officials never confirmed it, Iran says it used its radio electronic warfare skills and vulnerabilities in the Sentinel’s GPS receiver to trick it into landing on Iranian territory instead of its designated military base. The claims are considered plausible by many, since the drone did not sustain any visible damage during its alleged crash-landing.

US armed forces reportedly asked President Barack Obama for permission to either launch a commando raid to recover the drone, or bomb and destroy the UAV, but he declined to do either, for fear such actions would be seen as acts of war.

According to Russia's RT news sevice, Iran has since then also hunted down two more types of UAVs, Two RQ-11s and at least one ScanEagle that had penetrated Iranian airspace from the Persian Gulf.

IAF rehearses for UAV threat

The Israel Air Force conducted a rehearsal last month for an event in which an enemy UAV infiltrates Israeli airspace.

Both jet fighter and combat helicopter squadrons took part in the rehearsal, and practiced interception of a UAV near Israel's border, reported the Air Force website.

The IAF sees the threat as a growing one and the air crews rehearsed situations in which the most sophisticated UAVs in existence attempt to infiltrate – including models that Israel has never encountered.

"This year, we practiced against a different kind of UAV,” explained Captain Avi, Ground Safety Officer at Ramon Air Base. “It is more advanced, faster and canstay in the air longer than the routine UAVs, and thus poses more of a threat for the air crews.”

Besides the interceptors, the control crews also took part in the drill, as did their detection and alarm systems. It is their job to detect the small aircraft in the country's skies, and continuously monitor them, while scrambling the intercepting jets and helicopters and directing them toward the UAV.

"The training on this specific subject is meant to deal a preventive blow,” Captain Avi explained. “This is a threat that is constantly growing, and the Air Force is not ignoring it, on the contrary, it is preparing for the moment of need.

Last year, Iranian officials announced progress on reverse-engineering the captured Sentinel drone, saying that they has completed decoding its software and extracting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) surveillance data from it.

“All the memories and computer systems of this plane have been decoded and some good news will be announced in the near future not just about the RQ-170 and the optimizations that our forces have done on the reversed engineered model of this drone, but also in area of other important defense achievements,” Hossein Salami, the lieutenant commander general of Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution said at the time.

RT adds that Iran earlier managed to present a functional copycat model of the US ScanEagle to a Russian military delegation visiting Tehran last October. Before that, in February last year, Tehran demonstrated images of a ScanEagle UAV drone production line, revealing that this low-cost, high endurance drone would provide low-altitude reconnaissance for the Iranian military.

Cheney: we should have bombed it

The Sentinel drone that was downed or malfunctioned over Iran in 2011 was a topic of political controversy at the time. Former U.S. Vice President and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney attacked President Obama for failing to protect American technology that could be learned from the drone downed in Iran. 

Cheney said the drone should never have been allowed to fall into the hands of the Iranian government. "The right response would have go in immediately after it had gone down and destroy it," Cheney said. "I was told the president had three options on his desk. He rejected all of them."

When asked on CBS  if his recommendations would not lead to war with Iran, Cheney replied that Iran had already committed acts of war going back to the Hizbullah bombing of the US barracks in Beirut and that this would have been a simple mission.

Cheney was joined in his criticism by Independent Senator Joe Lieberman who lamented that the Sentinel was  "an extraordinary American asset, this drone."

He added "I think that it would have been very difficult to rescue it, but at least try to destroy it so the Iranians and anyone that they might share it with, would not have the benefit of the tech breakthroughs that it represents."