Iran could seek China's help on U.S. drone

President Obama got his answer today from Iran.

The president said he wanted his spy plane back. Iran said no.

Because the RQ-170 plane was one of America's most closely guarded secrets, not much is known about it, but CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports that some of Iran's boasts about the drone seem to be a stretch.

While Iranian television showed the top of the stealth drone to be intact, a U.S. official says the unmanned aircraft was "clearly damaged and probably broke apart" when it came down inside Iran.

Officials in Tehran claim they're close unlocking to the drone's secrets by "reverse engineering" critical systems. But, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it's unclear what the Iranians actually have.

"It's a little difficult to know just frankly how much they are going to be able to get from having obtained those parts. I don't know the condition of those parts, I don't know the state they are in," Panetta said.

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Defense analysts believe Iran may be able to copy the stealth construction of bat-winged aircraft and duplicate its radar-deflecting contours and paint.

However, it will be much harder to clone the software and spy systems of the RQ-170.

"If you don't have the software, if you don't know how it operates, it's a lot like someone handing you an iPhone and saying good luck with it," said Peter Singer, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution.

While U.S. officials will not say what kind of hardware the drone was carrying, the RQ-170 uses an assortment of cameras, radar sensors, and detectors capable of identifying uranium and radioactive materials. That equipment is typically mounted on the bottom of the aircraft.

Since the belly of the captured drone was hidden on the Iranian broadcast, it's not known if the key surveillance components survived the landing.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday on CBS' The Early Show that the U.S. should have avoided any potential intelligence loss by destroying the downed drone.

"For us to go in and take out the drone that crashed would have been, I think, a fairly simple operation, and it would have denied them the value of intelligence they can collect by having that aircraft," Cheney said.

U.S. officials say they rejected a destroy mission as "impractical." As for Iran's attempt to duplicate the drone, it could seek help from China, a country that has had some success with stealth clones.

Why the drone came down is still a mystery. It was programmed to return home. The U.S. officially rejects Iran's claim it brought the drone down with a cyberattack, but analysts say it is very possible.

  • Bob Orr

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