Iran has attempted to show the world that they have successfully test flown a 'clone' of the bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel stealth spy drone that the CIA lost in Iranian territory a few years ago. Thankfully, it looks like the propaganda machine in Tehran is up to their usual magic tricks, and not the most believable ones at that.
I am one of the rare defense writers that has consistently given Iran credit for being a resourceful and capable asymmetric foe, but I also have to call BS when I see it. This video showing what Iran claim's is a clone of the Sentinel is far from it. In fact, it appears to be a remote controlled toy, most likely similar to the one seen sitting between the real RQ-170 and a full scale mock-up of it in the video below.
The RQ-170 Sentinel is a program I have covered more thoroughly than any other journalist I know of. From its rumored existence as "The Beast of Kandahar", to a massive photo analyzation of the craft that was downed in Iran (that proved correct when almost everyone else claimed it was a fake), all the way to Iran's take on how the craft was brought down, moved and exploited (You can read all of my work on the Sentinel story at my old site by clicking here).
To put it bluntly, I have examined every single photo available of this machine, (including this recent one of what looks like a more advanced Air Force variation of the Sentinel sitting on the ramp at Andersen AFB, Guam) available in great detail. This includes limited video of the Sentinel operating, in which its sound can be heard, and I can tell you almost certainly that what Iran has 'unveiled' is a sub-scale, man-in-the-loop radio controlled model. An elaborate toy if you will.
Although it sounds impressive that Iran could even get an inherently unstable flying wing design like the RQ-170 to fly, even as scale model, it really is not. You can buy a large flying-wing B-2 bomber RC hobby plane kit for hundreds, not thousands of dollars. When a sub-scale flying wing craft is just a flying machine, nothing more, you can easily dictate its center of gravity and they can be quite nimble and stable actually:
It seems that what we have here is more of a display of what Iran is not capable of than what it is capable of. It has been years since the RQ-170 landed almost fully intact in Iranian hands, and yet they are still flying small RC models of it. Sure, the Sentinel's shape is radar defeating, but stealth is a bag of tricks, not just one grand illusion. In some of the Iranian video clips you can even see a large aerial sticking out of the RQ-170 'clone's' engine 'hump.' This is not something you would find on an aircraft that was designed to be flown by advanced data-link or even a large scale one at that.
Complex radar defeating coatings, advanced composite structures, along with cutting-edge electronic warfare equipment and low-probability of intercept (LPI) data-links (both satellite and line-of-sight) are most likely the majority of the magic that allows the RQ-170 to survive alone over enemy territory. The fact that Iran can make a small flying facsimile of the Sentinel's shape, something that high-end radio controlled aircraft builders would most likely be able to do in their garages, means that they are very far off from weaponizing the design in any form like its original intended purpose.
Even when Iran's unveiled its Hasboro-like mock-up of its indigenous F-313 'stealth fighter,' I gave them the benefit of the doubt and introduced the possibility that childish propaganda may be hiding actual future ambitions. Yet, when it comes to making an Iranian RQ-170 of full size and similar capability as the true Sentinel itself, I think Iran is incredibly far off from being able to do so, especially without great external help.
If China were to be actively involved with building an Iranian RQ-170 'clone,' it would be a different story as the whole RQ-170 incident most likely helped them out technologically and strategically way more than it did Iran. But seeing as Iran is touting the test flight of a model aircraft, I doubt that is the case.
This is not to say that even a swarm of 'dumb' RQ-170 shaped aircraft does not represent some sort of an asymmetric threat, although it is debatable as to the cost vs benefit logic of procuring such an ambiguous capability for a very cash strapped Iran. At the very best, we may eventually see an Iranian man-in-the loop unmanned system that is shaped like the RQ-170, not nearly as stealthy, if stealthy at all, but has the capability akin to a Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle.
The fact of the matter is that the RQ-170 has become a strong source of nationalistic pride for Iran, and one fueled by propaganda. RQ-170 toys were hot sellers in Iran following the craft's downing and a mock-up of it was featured in parades many months after the it fell from the sky. With this in mind, Iran needs to constantly remind their people of the RQ-170 story, and acting like they can actual recreate the thing is even better than showing bad facsimiles of the real McCoy off at public events.
When it comes to Iran's military capabilities, drastically improving its conventional aerial combat force appears to be far from a priority as they have done little to procure replacements for their rapidly aging and cobbled together fighter and attack aircraft force. What is at the top of their to do list is acquiring a nuclear weapon, which by now is almost certainly a question not of if but when.
In the meantime, I have a strong feeling that this won't be the last puzzling creation from Iran's military model shop for us to analyze.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com