The RQ-170 drone — the secret surveillance craft that Iran purports to have displayed on Thursday — has been seen before, but just barely.
Even before the Iranians claimed to have taken possession of the drone, the RQ-170 was the subject of fascination in military and intelligence circles.
Although it was believed to have been first spotted in 2007, flying out of Afghanistan, it wasn’t until December 2009 — after a model was photographed at the main U.S. airfield in Kandahar province — that the military confirmed the existence of the craft.
The Air Force now maintains a fact sheet on the drone, made by Lockheed Martin, but little is known about its capabilities or specifications, other than that it has special coatings and a batwing shape designed to evade enemy air radar.
The RQ-170 has always been seen at a distance, and images have always been of poor quality. (You can see one such image here.)
The result is that it’s exceedingly difficult to verify Iranians’ claims about the drone, including that it’s authentic and that it was barely damaged when it went down in the country’s east. U.S. officials have already dismissed claims that the RQ-170 was shot down.
The drone shown by the Iranians Thursday is mustard or beige in color, and it appears broken and mended in parts.
According to an Iranian brigadier general quoted by the semiofficial Fars News Agency, the drone has a wing span of about 85 feet.
The model seen in 2009 was estimated to have a wingspan of as much as 80 feet, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
The Pentagon on Thursday declined comment on the Iranian images.