TEL AVIV, Israel — A senior Israeli Air Force officer told reporters Monday that the Iranian drone it intercepted over the weekend was a “copy” of a stealthy U.S.-built RQ-170 Sentinel downed by Iranian forces over Iranian territory in 2011.
“It’s a copy of a similar system that fell in Iran,” Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, chief of staff of the Israeli Air Force, said of the drone in Israel’s possession, which he identified as Shahed 171.
“They more or less duplicated it … but I won’t grade them,” said Bar, referring to Iran’s reverse engineering capabilities.
Iran released a video of the Shahed 171 in flight back in 2014. Two years later, Iran showed another knockoff based on the Lockheed Martin Sentinel, an armed version known as the Saeqeh, according to Tal Inbar, director of the UAV and space program at Israel’s Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
“There are two copies that Iran made out of the RQ-170. One is Shahed 171, and this is supposed to be jet powered and for reconnaissance missions. Then there is the other variant of this vehicle — similar in design to RQ-170, with a piston engine and a propeller — named Saeqeh. This variant was shown in 2016 armed with four laser-guided munitions,” Inbar told Defense News.
Officers here said Israel maintained persistent intelligence of the drone as it took off from the Palmyra area of Syria, made its way through northern Jordan and entered Israeli airspace, where it was shot down by an Israeli Apache helicopter. “We have full situational awareness, 24/7 … and we remain steadfast in the face of the strategic aims of Iran and Hezbollah,” Bar said.
In response to the Feb. 10 breach of Israeli territory by the Iranian reverse-engineered U.S. system, Israel deployed a force package of eight F-16Is to target the Iranian command trailer near Palmyra in central Syria.
It was during that retaliatory raid that one of the Israeli F-16Is was hit by a Syrian-based air defense missile on its return to Israel. The front-line fighter fell in Israel’s Galilee region after the pilots ejected over Israeli territory.
Shortly after its Feb. 12 interception of the Iranian drone, Israel released grainy video footage of the aircraft flying in Israeli airspace, but has yet to release images from the wreckage of the Iranian knockoff now in its possession.
“I don’t know what was the specific vehicle that penetrated Israel. But if it was the Shahed, as the Air Force general said, it’s more sophisticated since it’s supposed to be jet powered. But from the video released by the Israel Defense Forces, you don’t see any trails of hot air typical of jet-powered vehicles,” Inbar noted.
“Either way, the fact that it was tracked and shot down by the Israel Air Force was a test for both sides: For the Iranians, it showed that they need to improve upon their stealth properties. And for the Israelis, it was validation of its air defense network,” he added.
Last May, in an indication that U.S. or allied forces could face knockoffs of the RQ-107 in battle, the U.S. Army included the Lockheed Sentinel system in its manual of “Visual Aircraft Recognition.”
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.