TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran claimed Sunday that it had recovered data from an American spy drone that went down in Iran last year, including information that the aircraft was used to spy on Osama bin Laden weeks before he was killed. Iran also said it was building a copy of the drone.
Similar unmanned surveillance planes have been used in Afghanistan for years and kept watch on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. But U.S. officials have said little about the history of the particular aircraft now in Iran's possession.
Tehran, which has also been known to exaggerate its military and technological prowess, says it brought down the RQ-170 Sentinel, a top-secret drone equipped with stealth technology, and has flaunted the capture as a victory for Iran and a defeat for the United States.
The U.S. says the drone malfunctioned and downplayed any suggestion that Iran could mine the aircraft for sensitive information because of measures taken to limit the intelligence value of drones operating over hostile territory.
The drone went down in December in eastern Iran and was recovered by Iran almost completely intact. After initially saying only that a drone had been lost near the Afghan-Iran border, American officials eventually confirmed the plane was monitoring Iran's military and nuclear facilities.
Washington has asked for it back, a request Iran rejected.
The chief of the aerospace division of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, told state television that the captured drone is a "national asset" for Iran and that he could not reveal full technical details.
But he did provide some samples of the data that he claimed Iranian experts had recovered from the aircraft, state television reported.
"There is almost no part hidden to us in this aircraft. We recovered part of the data that had been erased. There were many codes and characters. But we deciphered them by the grace of God," Hajizadeh said.
Among the drone's past missions, he said, was surveillance of the compound in northwest Pakistan where bin Laden lived. Hajizadeh claimed the drone flew over bin Laden's compound two weeks before the al-Qaida leader was killed there in May 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALs.
He also listed tests and maintenance that the drone had undergone, all of which, he said, had been recorded in the aircraft's memory. According to Hajizadeh, the drone was taken to California on Oct. 16, 2010, for "technical work" and then to Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18, 2010.
He said it carried out flights from Afghanistan but ran into some problems that U.S. experts were unable to fix. Then the drone was taken in December 2010 to Los Angeles, where the aircraft's sensors underwent testing, Hajizadeh said.
"If we had not achieved access to software and hardware of this aircraft, we would be unable to get these details. Our experts are fully dominant over sections and programs of this plane," he said.
Hajizadeh said he provided the details to prove to the Americans "how far we've penetrated into this aircraft."
The U.S. Defense Department said it does not discuss intelligence matters and would not comment on the Iranian claims.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency said Iran had reverse-engineered the aircraft and has begun using that knowledge to build a copy of the drone.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he views the reports with skepticism.
"There is a history here of Iranian bluster, particularly, now when they are on the defensive because of the economic sanctions against them."
He acknowledged that it was "not good for the U.S. when the drone went down in Iran and not good when the Iranians grabbed it." But the senator said he did not "have confidence at this point that they are really able to make a copy of it."
Iran has gone a long way in reverse-engineering some key technologies in the past three decades, particularly in the areas of nuclear and missile technology.
Iran's famous Shahab-3 missile, first displayed in 1998, is believed to be based on North Korea's Nodong-1 design. Iran obtained its first centrifuge from Pakistan in 1986 and later reverse-engineered it to develop its now advanced uranium-enrichment program.
Centrifuges, which purify uranium gas, are the central component of a process that can make fuel for power plants or – at higher levels of processing – weapons.
However, unlike the situation with the drone, the Iranian government usually touts these achievements as the result of an indigenous, home-grown research.
One area where there is concern is whether Iran or other states could reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone's radar-deflecting paint or the aircraft's sophisticated optics technology that allows operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air.
How much data there is on the drone is another question. Some surveillance technologies allow video to stream through to operators on the ground but do not store much collected data. If they do, it is encrypted.
Media reports claimed this week that Russia and China have asked Tehran to provide them with information on the drone, but Iran's Defense Ministry denied that.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's stealth Phantom Ray took to the skies for the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/05/bds_phantom_ray_first_flight_05_04_11.html" target="_hplink">first time in April 2011</a>. According to Boeing, the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/advertising/bma/unmanned/unmanned_05.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Ray can perform missions</a> such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and electronic attack. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown. This is a "demonstrator" so there will likely be a future variation of the Ray.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems <a href="http://www.ga-asi.com/products/aircraft/predator_c.php" target="_hplink">Predator Avenger C</a> is a beast. According to the two-page brochure, the PAC is a "Next-Generation Multi-mission ISR and Strike Aircraft" and successor for the Predator B that can be stacked with a multitude of weaponry. <strong>Deployment</strong>: There is one <a href="http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?topicName=unmanned&id=news/awst/2011/12/19/AW_12_19_2011_p25-406500.xml&headline=USAF Plans Larger, More Capable Predator&channel=&from=topicalreports" target="_hplink">demonstration craft currently in Afghanistan</a>.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Yo dawg, I heard you like drones so I <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/socom-warhead-drones/" target="_hplink">put a drone in your drone</a>. One small deadly warhead-equipped mini-drone stuffed into another, to be launched from the main drone and remotely aimed at a target. <strong> Potential Deployment</strong>: This <a href="http://defensenewsstand.com/NewsStand-General/The-INSIDER-Free-Article/socom-could-have-warhead-equipped-micro-uav-by-spring-2012/menu-id-720.html" target="_hplink">warhead-equiped micro-UAV</a> could be flown by SOCOM in the skies by spring 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (USA) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.avinc.com/uas/adc/switchblade/" target="_hplink">AeroVironment's Switchblade</a> is meant to be a portable, rapid deployment, beyond line-of-sight, "loitering munition" that is a "magic bullet." A bit of advice, AeroVironment: Don't describe a remote-controlled bomb as a "loitering munition" that you call "Switchblade," as it conjures up images of 1950's-style greasers loitering on street corners, flipping open switchblades idly as they wait for their favorite gals. Luckily, greasers won't be in charge of flying Switchblades. They're to be controlled by infantry and <a href="http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=7982421&&s=TOP" target="_hplink">according to the AeroVironment</a>, "Flying quietly at high speed the Switchblade delivers its onboard explosive payload with precision while minimizing collateral damage." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed.
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (USA, DARPA Funded) <strong>Description</strong>: AeroVironment is at it again. In partnership with DARPA, they've actually managed to build a human mechanically engineered version of one of nature's most amazing flying machines: the hummingbird. The <a href="http://www.avinc.com/media_gallery/" target="_hplink">Nano Hummingbird</a> is a perfect bid for James Bond-esque style spy shenanigans. Once these hit the field, we'll never look at hummingbirds the same way. "Stop looking at me! That bird is following me!" <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Within five years.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Army) <strong>Description</strong>: Though the military's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/30/us-army-hummingbird-a160-helicopter-drone_n_1176763.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">A160 Hummingbird drone</a> doesn't resemble an actual hummingbird so much as AeroVironment's take, it is <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/12/06/nprs_domestic_drone_commercial/" target="_hplink">raising just as many alarms</a> because of its potential to be deployed on the U.S. home front. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: May or June 2012, Afghanistan
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: Northrop Grumman <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/mq8bfirescout_navy/index.html" target="_hplink">describes the Firescout</a> as a "Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system provides unprecedented situation awareness and precision targeting support for U.S. Armed Forces of the future. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=237497" target="_hplink">March 2013</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (German Ministry of Defense, purchased from Northrop Grumman) <strong>Description</strong>: NG touts its <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/index.html" target="_hplink">Euro Hawk</a>, built for German Ministry of Defense, as having a "wingspan larger than a commercial airliner, endurance of more than 30 hours and a maximum altitude of more than 60,000 feet, EURO HAWK is an interoperable, modular and cost-effective replacement to the aging fleet of manned Breguet Atlantic aircraft, which have been in service since 1972 and will be retired in 2010." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: 2015, 2016 (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/assets/SIGINT_NewsRelease_101211.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>)
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: A carrier-based combat drone, <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/index.html" target="_hplink">Northrop Grumman's futuristic X-47B</a> flew in its cruise configuration <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=239278" target="_hplink">for the first time</a> on November 22, 2011. It can land with precision on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, and features twin weapons payload bays that hold up to 4,500 lbs. (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/X-47B_Navy_UCAS_FactSheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>). <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/navy-killer-drone-refuel/" target="_hplink">2018</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (British) <strong>Description</strong>: BAE System's Taranis (<a href="http://www.baesystems.com/BAEProd/groups/public/documents/bae_publication/bae_pdf_taranis_fact_sheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>) is aiming to "Push the boundaries by providing advancements in low observability capability and autonomous mission systems operations demonstrating the feasibility and utility of UAVs." Such a statement starts to push the idea of fully autonomous flight from science fiction into science fact, though we're still a long way off from having an actual real debate on fully autonomous drones fighting our battles and flying our skies. Potential Deployment: TBD, test flights have been delayed to 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Communications <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's hydrogen-powered <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2010/07/bds_feat_phantom_eye_07_12_10.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Eye</a> is a High Altitude Long Duration Craft designed to fly at <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/11/bds_phantom_eye_11_16_11.html" target="_hplink">65,000 feet for up to four days</a>. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
<strong>Type</strong>: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/TTO/Programs/Vulture.aspx" target="_hplink">DARPA's description</a> says the "Vulture technology enables a re-taskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability, in an aircraft package." Basically, DARPA is attempting to develop a super long duration craft capable of five year continuous flight. Think about that - the Vulture is intended to fly for up to five years continuously. If it were to launch this year it would be in the air for two Olympics. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
<strong>Type</strong>: Government Funded Space Exploration <strong>Description</strong>: While the proposal probably won't go through for this mission, this is an aerial drone we can really get behind. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/04/aviatr-probe-proposed-mission-titan_n_1184028.html" target="_hplink">AVIATR</a> would be a long distance drone that would fly the skies of Saturn's moon Titan. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Beyond 2020
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (Japan) <strong>Description</strong>: Techcrunch <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/25/video-japans-defense-ministry-develops-awesome-ball-shaped-drone/" target="_hplink">tells us</a> that the drone can "stand still in mid-air, fly vertically and horizontally through narrow spaces at up to 60km/h, and (which is very cool) keep on moving when it hits the ground or a wall. Thanks to three gyro sensors in its body, the machine can keep also flying even if it's hit by an obstacle." And all for only $1,400. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed