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Iran capture of US spy drone 'would be significant blow to military'

Iran could deal a significant blow to the US military if it has captured a top secret American spy drone, allowing Tehran to counter or copy the highly classified technology, experts have warned.

An RQ-170 American drone has been shot down in eastern Iran

By Ben Farmer, Kabul

4:20PM GMT 05 Dec 2011

Tehran claims to have brought down with "little damage" an RQ-170 surveillance drone, considered one of the most secret aircraft in the world, flying inside eastern Iran.

The seizure of the unarmed surveillance drone intact would give access to a treasure trove of classified information including the designs of the aircraft and its payload of sensors.

However it was unlikely the drone had escaped a crash or being shot down without significant damage and its sensitive technology was probably rigged with self-destruct mechanisms, experts added.

Suspicion surrounds the claims because Iran has yet to release any footage of the captured drone or its wreckage.

Nato forces confirmed a drone went missing in Afghanistan near the Iranian border last week, though would not say what kind it was.

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Huw Williams, an expert on unmanned aircraft at Jane's International Defence Review, said the RQ-170 Sentinel, made by Lockheed Martin, was one of the most secret drone programmes in the world and had reportedly taken part in the operation which killed Osama bin Laden.

The aircraft is designed for intelligence gathering and relaying communications.

If it fell into Iranian hands, engineers could potentially find ways to defeat its stealth technology and take advantage of its sensors and communications equipment.

"If you can figure out the properties of the aircraft and what makes it stealthy, then you can figure out how to spot it more easily," he said.

"If the Iranians have the technology then there could be good opportunities for reverse engineering and getting a good idea of how to track these things." "It's fair to say they are no mugs when it comes to technology.

There's a good chance that they could exploit things especially if the payload is intact and it's carrying things like high-end cameras." Elizabeth Quintana, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said: "If this got into the hands of anyone, let alone the Iranians, this would be quite significant." Even the prospect of its successful capture would probably force the American military to divert money to more research to stay a step ahead of Iran.

"It would certainly force the US to spend money just in case they were able to reverse engineer it," she said.

The aircraft was designed to operate deep inside enemy territory, though, and would almost certainly have self destruct measures to stop secrets falling into enemy hands.

Paul Rolfe, UK director of Unmanned Experts, said: "I would be very surprised if the question hasn't been asked and answered at the highest level: 'What happens if Iran or China or North Korea gets their hands on one of these things?'

"The really worrying bit is any payload and package it may have been holding. But given the altitudes and speeds it operates at, I think it's more likely to have come down upside down at 600 knots and they are going to be picking bits of ceramic out of the desert for five years."