At first glance, in what seems like something of a hugely ironic flashback to the headline-making loss of a secretive American RQ-170 Sentinel in Iranian territory exactly a decade ago to the day, one of Iran's rather crude sub-scale knock-offs of the basic Sentinel airframe (we can't stress basic enough here) appears to have crashed in the Iranian province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari. The province is located just to the southwest of Isfahan, which is largely understood to be an epicenter of Iran's nuclear program and a key area of interest for U.S. intelligence. In fact, it is just the kind of nuclear installation that American RQ-170s were tasked with spying on when the one fell into Iranian hands ten years ago.
The December 5th, 2011, RQ-170 'capture' remains a huge source of pride and propaganda for the Iranian military. As such, one has to ask if this incident could be some sort of elaborate reenaction for propaganda purposes? Otherwise, it is an outright bizarre coincidence of almost unbelievable proportions.
The drone at the scene of the supposed crash looks to be a Shahed-191. Iran has various RQ-170-influenced flying-wing drone variants of different sizes, of which this type is the second-largest at about 2/3rds scale. By our estimation, its wingspan is around 24 feet, compared to the RQ-170's roughly 38-foot span.
"A provincial official has confirmed the emergency landing of the drone due to bad weather conditions in the region," according to a report from the quasi-official Mehr news agency.
Just like footage that emerged sometime after the RQ-170 crash in 2011, the Iranian airframe is seen largely intact. As in the 2011 incident, they loaded it onto a truck and at least tried to airlift it via an Mi-17 helicopter. The RQ-170 is built for its wings to be detached at prominent fuselage joints. Footage from the decade-old crash involving the actual RQ-170 showed an Iranian Mi-17 airlifting just the fuselage. In this case, the aircraft is totally intact, including its wings, which makes for a less than stable sling-load.
While none of Iran's RQ-170-inspired creations come close to matching its actual capabilities, they have become a major threat due to their somewhat reduced radar signature and long-range. Israel has already identified these aircraft as a real issue it will likely continue to deal with and has already shot at least one down in its airspace. In addition, while Iran's attempts to make these far less complex aircraft look like RQ-170 to an almost absurd degree, it is noteworthy that they have gotten the larger models to fly. Truly tailless flying-wing aircraft are notoriously unstable and the larger they get the more challenging it can be for them to reliably fly throughout their operating envelope. Iran appears to have overcome these historical hurdles, at least to some degree.
There was also a strange report of an explosion near Natanz, another key Iranian nuclear facility that isn't that far to the north of Isfahan, this weekend. Iran claims this was an air defense exercise that included the shoot-down of a drone. While the official line is that this was not related to the Shahed-191 'emergency landing,' it does seem a bit odd.
Once again, the question is what actually happening here? Did a test or training flight of one of Iran's RQ-170-inspired drones go terribly wrong on the most ironic of dates? Or is this some sort of spectacle recreating the loss of the American RQ-170 on the 10th anniversary of that historic event? We are leaning towards the latter. Iran does these kinds of things for major calendar milestones, especially recreating or reminding its citizens of significant military victories, or emulating ones it aspires to in the future, on key dates. Regardless, it is very suspect seeing these freakishly familiar images pop up on the tenth anniversary of the RQ-170 falling into Iranian hands.
We will report back when we find out more about this strange incident.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com