The RQ-170 Sentinel, supposedly the CIA’s unseen “eye in the sky”, capable of beaming back a trove of imagery and electronic intercepts, was broadcast on Iranian state television.
The aircraft was shown beneath an Iranian flag, apparently intact after crashing 140 miles inside the country last Sunday. State television claimed that an electronic attack had forced it down by overriding flight systems. American officials acknowledged the loss of the aircraft, but said it was more likely the drone had simply crashed.
Russia and China immediately seized their chance to gain a unique insight into one of the world’s most powerful intelligence assets, asking Iran for permission to inspect the drone. Surveillance flights over Iran by CIA-operated aircraft of this kind have been taking place for several years, using bases in neighbouring Afghanistan. Iran’s nuclear installations are believed to be the prime target.
The Sentinel, which entered service in 2009, is capable of both intercepting communications and gathering images. No Sentinels are known to have been lost before. Unlike other drones used by the CIA, notably the Predator and the Reaper, the Sentinel carries no weapons and its sole purpose is reconnaissance.
If Russia and China are allowed to inspect the Sentinel, their goal would be to identify - and then replicate - its advanced technology. Elizabeth Quintana, an expert on unmanned air vehicles at the Royal United Services Institute, said they would be particularly interested in the drone’s ability to evade detection by radar.