Iran claims to have copied U.S. unmanned drone; what's the threat from this captured technology?

May 13, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 13 May 2014. Leaders of the Iranian government claim to have copied a U.S. stealth unmanned drones, which the Iranians captured three years ago while the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) reportedly was flying a surveillance mission over Iranian nuclear and military sites.
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 13 May 2014. Leaders of the Iranian government claim to have copied a U.S. stealth spy drone, which the Iranians captured three years ago while the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) reportedly was flying a surveillance mission over Iranian nuclear and military sites.

At first it's easy to dismiss the military threat that this copied U.S. low-observable UAV might pose. It's taken U.S. experts decades to develop the most sophisticated drones in the sky. How could the Iranians copy one in three years with anywhere near the capabilities that U.S. unmanned aircraft have?

Plus, Iranian government officials have shown themselves prone to bluster. They have claimed to have advanced attack submarine capability, formidable air-to-air jet fighter capability, and now advanced UAV capability allegedly with surveillance and attack capability.

Even with an undamaged original U.S. UAV to work from, there's only so much that can be done with even the most sophisticated reverse engineering. It's one thing to come up with a theoretical design and a mockup; it's quite another to test and refine the aircraft and make sure it will work as expected in wartime conditions.

Related: Stealing a drone by spoofing, is it that easy?

With little or no demonstrations or experience in real wartime conditions, who's to know for sure just what Iran's military capabilities are. A gut check, however, might tell us that if Iran really had the military capabilities its leaders claim, then why would they be talking about it so loudly?

As a side note, this might be a pretty good test of U.S. anti-tamper technology.

Now for a second thought. There's little doubt that all of Iran's boasting is intentional. They want to say what they can do and how they can do it to American and allied forces in and around the Persian Gulf.

U.S. military officials want to keep the Persian Gulf open to transport a large portion of the world's Middle East oil supply. In the event of war, Iran wants to close the Gulf and do as much damage to U.S. forces as possible.

I think Iran is trying to lull U.S. military forces into a false defensive strategy in attempts to keep the Gulf open and safe for international shipping. They're trying to leave the impression that an attack UAV would be the spearhead of an attack on U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf if it came to war. I don't think that's the case at all.

Related: Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

It's reasonable clear that Iran is developing military tactics in the Gulf based on a plan of swarming technologically superior U.S. and allied forces in the Gulf with large numbers of fast and maneuverable missile boats, land-based anti-ship missiles, small diesel submarines, and perhaps even light aircraft.

Plans call for staging attacks on U.S. and allied forces in the Gulf from several geographically dispersed bases, and converging on their American targets from many different directions. Such an approach conceals the size, intentions, and objectives of attacks until Iranian forces converge at the last minute.

Like nearly all swarm types of attack, the idea is to confuse, distract, and overwhelm an opponent. With a combined force of converging fast missile boats, anti-ship missiles popping up from many different directions, and perhaps even light aircraft with electronic jammers and missiles coming out of nowhere, defending the Gulf from Iranian attacks suddenly becomes a formidable task.

Related: Let's hope anti-tamper technology is real, as one of the most advanced UAVs falls into Iranian hands

In such a scenario, the Iranians would be overwhelmingly outgunned platform-for-platform, but U.S. forces would be overwhelmingly outnumbered by attackers. U.S. and allied forces would have their hands full tracking and engaging potentially hundreds of fast missile boats, incoming missiles, submerged submarines, and swarming small aircraft.

Now add what looks to be a stealthy U.S. designed U.S. UAV the mix. Think that might grab some attention inside a carrier battle group? That UAV clone doesn't really have to possess much offensive capability; all it has to do is fly in the right direction to distract and deceive U.S. forces.

In this kind of fight, some missile, some torpedo, or some sea mine is bound to get through U.S. defenses, and it wouldn't take more than a few hits to do some serious damage -- perhaps even sink or cripple a U.S. aircraft carrier inside the Persian Gulf.

Just something to think about when considering the latest round of Iranian boasting.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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