How Downed U.S RQ-170 Stealth Drone Can Help China?

By Joshua Wiseman

 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.

A robust arms sales relationship has existed between China and Iran
since the early 1980s. China has supplied Iran with military hardware
including fighter aircraft (F-7), fast-attack patrol vessels, anti-ship
cruise missiles, and guidance technologies for use in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The dollar amount of official arms transfers in the decade 2000-2010 decreased from
previous decades, but China continues to help Iran develop critical
weapons programs. According to Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News agency,
both Chinese and Russian officials have already made requests to inspect the RQ-170.

A recent National Defense University study by
Phillip Saunders and myself looked at the history of China’s military
aviation industry and gave numerous examples of how access to foreign
aircraft designs and reverse engineering of components has helped China
expand its aerospace technology capacity. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet
split in 1960, China used reverse engineering to fill technical gaps
and improve upon older Soviet designs. Access to restricted U.S.
aircraft and aerospace technologies gained through third parties has
also provided opportunities to apply reverse engineering. One commonly
cited example is Chinese access to the F-16 gained through its close
relationship with Pakistan. It’s difficult to determine the exact level
of access China enjoyed, but open source references claim that Chinese
technical personnel visiting Pakistan in the early 1980s were given the
opportunity to examine the F-16 in detail (I recommend Wei Chen Lee’s
excellent article “The Birth of a Salesman: China as an Arms Supplier”).
Islamabad may have also transferred completed subsystems to China and
provided access to the design and maintenance blueprints necessary to
service the aircraft.

The Chinese military aviation industry’s technology base and ability
to produce sophisticated aerospace systems has expanded rapidly over the
past two decades, greatly improving its ability to exploit and
potentially replicate technologies used
in the RQ-170 drone. For example, China’s J-10 multi-role fighter
incorporates metal alloys and composite materials for high strength and
low weight. China developed the fourth generation J-11B fighter through a
combination of coproduction and reverse engineering the Russian Su-27,
with a particular focus on indigenizing subsystems. The unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter
prototype, which made its first test flight in January, demonstrates
China’s ability to incorporate stealth technology in new aircraft

China is also making significant efforts to develop and deploy its
own UAV capabilities. In 2010, China displayed 25 different models of
UAV at its biennial Zhuhai airshow.
Officials representing China’s ASN Technology Group – one of several
major UAV producers – claimed that the People’s Liberation Army is
already operating two drones. The Institute for International Strategic
Studies reported in its Military Balance 2010 that China has
deployed several types of UAV for both “combat and reconnaissance”
purposes, though it makes no specific mention of armed drones.

Even if China hasn’t yet fielded an armed UAV, the number of models
in advanced stages of development makes it clear that this capability
will be part of its air power arsenal in the near future. The deployment
of UAV systems supports the Chinese military’s doctrinal imperative of
increasing “informationization” to improve situational awareness and
adds another layer of remote targeting and strike capability which can
enhance China’s ability to deny military access on its periphery.

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.