Monday, December 26, 2011

How Downed U.S. Drone Helps China

Via The Diplomat (Dec 24, 2011) -

The loss of a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone over eastern Iran has led to speculation that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will eventually find its way into Chinese hands. Access to the drone could allow China to use reverse engineering to incorporate key technologies into its own indigenous aerospace systems and to develop countermeasures that would make it harder for U.S. stealth UAVs and aircraft to operate near China. Iran has significant political, military, and financial incentives to provide such access, reversing the usual flow of technology from China to Iran.

Despite the claims of some Iranian officials, Iran lacks the technical capacity to exploit and duplicate the advanced technologies in the RQ-170 on its own. Providing access to China could therefore generate benefits in terms of expanded Iranian access to Chinese military technologies, potential future access to UAV countermeasures, and Chinese diplomatic support in Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.


Access to the RQ-170 would give Chinese engineers the opportunity to study the drone’s sensor systems, control and communication systems, and the materials and design elements that make it stealthy. Access to the drone might further allow engineers to understand how its subsystems are fused together and how it operates as an integrated whole. Even if the Chinese aerospace industry can’t use reverse engineering to produce an indigenous equivalent of the RQ-170, Chinese engineers could probably learn enough from the RQ-170 to develop improved countermeasures and defenses against it and similar systems. China is already devoting considerable attention to improving its air defenses and developing means to defeat U.S. stealth technology, and so access to the RQ-170 would facilitate Chinese efforts to understand how advanced U.S. UAVs operate and to devise new ways to exploit their operational weaknesses.

It’s unclear whether Iranian air defenses or countermeasures played a role in downing the RQ-170. A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that there was a “95 percent chance” that the drone crashed due to technical malfunction.In later statements, U.S. officials flatly denied Iranian claims that a sophisticated cyber attack brought down the RQ-170, but have been less definitive about whether Iran might have used other means like GPS jamming to interfere with the drone’s flight.

But even if the loss of the RQ-170 over Iran was due to a technical malfunction, Chinese access to the drone may eventually help produce countermeasures and improved air defenses that make it harder for the United States to operate stealthy UAVs over hostile territory. Iran would be a prime customer for such systems; a Chinese commitment to sell UAVs and countermeasures might be part of Iran’s price tag for access to the RQ-170.

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