Late last week, Iran released photos and videos of a very fake-looking stealth fighter jet.
This week, Tehran may have done a little bit better. This video, posted to YouTube on Wednesday, shows what is claimed to be camera footage taken from the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that Iran claims to have captured in 2011.
When someone first sent me this video I was very skeptical. Then I took a closer look and became a lot less so. Let's go through it carefully.
First, notice the very opening shots. You can see what appears to be the nose landing gear drop. It seems to drop toward the side of plane, just like the RQ-170's nose gear appears to do based on photos taken of the jet taxiing around Kandahar air base in Afghanistan. Just as interesting is the fact that the camera on this aircraft is positioned behind a rather complex nose landing gear assembly -- a layout that matches grainy Web images of the Sentinel that show what looks like a compartment that could contain a camera positioned on the bottom of the airplane, just behind the front landing gear.
This unusual layout isn't shared by the U.S.'s most common attack drones; the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Unlike what we've seen of the RQ-170, both of those planes have sensor balls (yes, they're really called that) capable of rotating 360 degrees that hang just in front of their (rather primitive) nose landing gear.
After a few flying shots, you see footage taking as the aircraft taxis at what looks an awful lot like an American air base, right down to C-130s parked on the ramp. In fact, at about 48 seconds in, you can see what looks like an MQ-9 Reaper drone (or possibly two) parked in an enclosed ramp -- a drone pen if you will -- complete with a walled perimeter and those tent hangars that are seen at expeditionary drone bases around the world.
At 56-57 seconds, you see the camera quickly swivel to the right before bumping up against what appears to be the limits of its pan. As noted above, most drone sensor balls would be able to rotate 360 degrees, unless they were housed in a forward-looking compartment designed to maintain the aircraft's stealthy shape. (It could also be the forward edge of the rear landing gear doors, as seen in photos of the Sentinel taxiing.)
The camera then swivels back to the nose gear as the plane taxis forward into the drone pen. The fact that this aircraft is taxiing into a drone pen with U.S. drones nearby supports the notion that this is not just footage from a random aircraft with a sensor ball, but a U.S. drone. One thing that makes me a little bit skeptical is a mysterious strut that looks like it might attach to the landing gear (you can see this strut at the 25 second mark). Other than that, it looks like the Iranians may well have accessed data from the RQ-170 they got their hands on. Something U.S. officials said would be very, very difficult. For this reason, you'd think that Iranian officials would have made a bigger deal of the video.
If you've seen this footage before and can debunk it, sound off in the comments.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.