A reported first flight by Iran of a reverse-engineered copy of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) appears to have featured a sub-scale model rather than a full-scale replica as announced by state media on 10 November.
Video footage of the flight broadcast by Press TV on 12 November appears to show a remote-controlled sub-scale copy of the RQ-170, which Iran captured from the United States in 2011, performing a series of high-speed passes.
Whereas Iranian officials have hailed the flight as an example of the country's domestic aerospace capabilities, there are a number of giveaways in the video that indicate the RQ-170 in flight was actually a sub-scale model. Such a model was shown during the unveiling ceremony of the full-scale replica alongside the captured original, attended by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari on 11 May.
While the video mainly shows the aircraft flying in an empty sky, there are a few shots that give the viewer a sense of its scale. These include a brief shot of the RQ-170 taking off from a runway that would be far too wide if the vehicle was indeed full-sized.
Further, a shot of the UAV flying ahead of a Bell 206 JetRanger chase helicopter again shows the aircraft to be too small to be a full-scale replica. Both the sub- and full-scale vehicles were shown alongside the HESA Shahed (Witness) 285 light attack helicopter (an indigenous version of the JetRanger) at the unveiling, and so a fairly accurate size comparison can be made.
Another indication that the UAV flight featured a sub-scale (and likely sub-par) copy of the original is a radio antenna that can clearly be seen on the upper fuselage, suggesting that this Iranian model was flown by remote-control from the ground, rather than autonomously.
The final giveaway that the aircraft is not the same as the full-scale replica shown in May is the undercarriage. Whereas the undercarriage of the full-scale replica features a single nosewheel and main wheels attached to a single strut, the model that flew has a double nosewheel and a rather spindly main wheel arrangement that would be suitable for a much smaller and lighter aircraft.
Whether the Iranians plan to manufacture this sub-scale version (they would not require the same range performance as the original aircraft and so would require less fuel capacity), or whether this represents a flying prototype for the full-scale replica, remains to be seen.
Reports that Iran has flown a reverse-engineered copy of the RQ-170 must be treated with some scepticism. State-run media outlets have in recent years made a number of similar claims about the development of other 'new and highly capable' aircraft types, only for them to fall well short of the hype when finally unveiled.
For example, an 'indigenously designed' maritime patrol aircraft turned out to be an Antonov An-140 regional airliner fitted with some basic electro-optical and infrared cameras, while other recently unveiled Iranian platforms have been little more than modified Western types that were procured before the fall of the Shah in 1979. These include the Shahed (Witness) 285 light attack helicopter developed from the Bell 206 JetRanger, and the Northrop F-5-derived Azarakhsh (Lightning), Saeghe (Thunderbolt), and Simorgh (Phoenix) fighter aircraft.
Most recently Iran revealed its own 'stealth fighter' in the form of the Qaher-313 (also known as the F-313). Barely large enough to fit a pilot, this aircraft seemingly bears little more than a passing resemblance to other fifth-generation combat aircraft either in service or being developed. Images of the very basic cockpit and Plexiglas-looking canopy added to the derision surrounding this aircraft.
From the video evidence it would appear that with the RQ-170 Iran has once again made a claim about its advanced aerospace capabilities that is not borne out by the reality.