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Could Iran copy the 'beast'? US aircraft have been reverse-engineered before

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(Read caption) This photo released on Dec. 8, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and taken at an undisclosed location claims to show the US RQ-170 Sentinel drone which Tehran says its forces downed last week. In the banner in background depicting Iranian flag over which the text reads: "God is Great", "Down with America", "Down with Israel", and "Down with England."

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OK, Iran’s got the US “beast” – the RQ-170 Sentinel drone nicknamed the Beast of Kandahar after it was spotted a few years ago on a runway in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Iran isn’t going to give it back, either, no matter how nicely President Obama asks.

“Their plane invaded Iran and Iranian forces reacted powerfully,” said Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Dec. 13. “Now, instead of offering an apology to the Iranian nation, they impudently ask for the return of the plane.”

What are the Iranians going to do? Take it apart and copy something that represents the work of hundreds of America’s most talented engineers?

Maybe. It’s been done before, by a country that at the time the United States considered technologically inferior.

Let’s dial the way-back machine to July 31, 1944. That morning, a B-29 heavy bomber nicknamed Ramp Tramp took off from Chengtu (now known as Chengdu), China, on its way to bomb a Japanese-held steel mill in Manchuria. But the Superfortress developed engine trouble and ended up making an emergency landing at a Soviet base in Vladivostok.

The USSR was an American ally at the time. But that didn’t stop Soviet officials from imprisoning Ramp Tramp’s crew and impounding the aircraft itself.

The airmen were released after seven months. But the Soviets kept the B-29.

Engineers at the Tupolev aircraft company scrutinized Ramp Tramp and two other impounded B-29s. Under pressure from Joseph Stalin, they produced a Soviet equivalent, the Tu-4 “Bull,” which was almost an exact copy of the US aircraft, down to the rivets.

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The aircraft made its debut in a flyover at the Tushino air show near Moscow in August 1947. At first, Western observers thought the planes were the actual B-29s, repainted in Soviet colors. When they saw a fourth, civilian version of the Tu-4 roar past, they knew the USSR was producing them.

A Tu-4 was used in the first airdrop of a Soviet atomic bomb, on Oct. 18, 1951. It served as the primary Soviet long-range bomber into the mid-1950s. Thereafter it served many purposes, from anti-ship weapon to, yes, drone carrier.

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