Can Iran Really Copy a U.S. Drone?

Tehran says it's gleaned enough information from a downed U.S. aircraft to build a copy. Experts are skeptical.

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An Iranian boy holds a portrait of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali khamenei.

Remember that U.S. drone that went down in Iran last year? Iran’s military does, and they’re not done with it yet. On Sunday, officials in Tehran claimed that they had recovered enough information from the craft to build their own.

The RQ-170 Sentinel went down in December in eastern Iran (Iranian officials say they forced the drone down; American officials insist it was a malfunction) and was almost immediately paraded on state television, to no small amount of consternation in the U.S.

According to the Associated Press, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh provided examples of the information on state television.  The drone in question, he said, had been involved in surveillance of Osama bin Laden’s compound in northwest Pakistan, just two weeks before the al Qaeda leader’s death — a detail that proves “how far we’ve penetrated the aircraft.”

“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. According to some news outlets Russia and China have both asked Iran to share information on the drone, although Iran’s Defense Ministry denies the reports.

Skepticism, however, remains strong among American officials who question not only Iranian technological capability but the value of any  information the drone could possibly offer. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, raised doubts about Iran’s claims on Fox News Sunday, saying he did not “have confidence at this point that they are really able to make a copy of it.” Dennis M. Gormley, an expert on drones and cruise missiles at the University of Pittsburgh, was dismissive of Iran’s claims in quotes given to the New York Times. “As someone who does monitor Iranian airspace and missile claims closely,” he said, “let me simply observe that they are preternaturally disposed to exaggeration.”

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