State of play on the drone downed in Iran

Dead drone.

The Iranians have put out a video of Iranian aviators in flight suits walking around the RQ-170 Sentinel, which appears to be intact, although the airframe is on a stand that obscures the underbelly, where the engines and wheel assembly would otherwise be visible.

According to Fox, a US official confirms the drone in the video to be the one reported missing by US operators.  A number of web commentators have suggested that the thing in the video is not an RQ-170, but a US official says, at least, that it’s the drone that is missing.

I would agree with some of the doubters that the drone in the Iranian video isn’t 100% identical to the images of the RQ-170 available on the web.  But it’s not uncommon for secretive, special-purpose platforms to exist as a small, motley collection of one-, two-, or three-offs.  The overall design is the same.  One thing I would definitely say is that the drone in the video doesn’t have the 65-foot wingspan long considered the standard estimate in aviation-tech circles.  It looks closer to the low-end estimate of 46 feet.

All that said, I’m not clear on why US officials are in a rush to publicly confirm, with colorful details, that the Iranians got our drone.  It’s not immediately obvious what the upside of doing that is.  It could be something as simple as wanting to get the bad news over with, but why go into all the detail about who was operating the drone, and where, and which plans were rejected for retrieving and destroying it? – and why make a point of how we’re concerned that Russia and China may get hold of it?

That latter consideration has to qualify as one of the biggest “DUHs” of 2011.  But aside from injecting “duhs” into the news cycle, the US government seems to be spilling its guts to a much greater degree than is warranted.

Meanwhile, alert analysts are asking whether the drone downing was related in any way to the virus found on ground-control computers at Creech Air Force Base in September.  The Sentinel is operated out of Creech, like other drone types including the Predator.  But the Air Force’s eventual disclosures about the virus suggest that that’s unlikely.  The Air Force follow-up didn’t get much play in the national media, but it was picked up by local outlets in Nevada:

“The malware in question is a credential stealer, not a keylogger, found routinely on computer networks and is considered more of a nuisance than an operational threat,” according to the Air Force statement. “It is not designed to transmit data or video, nor is it designed to corrupt data, files or programs on the infected computer.”

Air Force Space Command officials said the virus infected computers that were part of the ground-control system that supports remotely piloted aircraft operations.

“The ground system is separate from the flight control system Air Force pilots use to fly the aircraft remotely; the ability of the … pilots to safely fly these aircraft remained secure throughout the incident,” the Air Force statement said.

Since the ground-control system was not – according to the Air Force – connected to a network outside of Creech, the only way to download stolen credentials would have been for a human to use portable storage media inside the center where the ground system is operated.  And even then, the credentials would have been useless with the flight-control system – the one in use when the drone went down in Iran.

Assuming Iran did get hold of an RQ-170, it’s not a good thing.  It wouldn’t be the first time unfriendly nations got samples of US technology, of course.  It should force us to move forward with next-generation improvements; even minor ones can prolong the useful life of a state-of-the-art drone.  I’m not worried that the ingenuity of US engineers isn’t up to the challenge – as long as we prioritize keeping our edge.

The drone downing comes at an informative time, however, hard on the heels of the mistaken NATO attack on the Pakistani base in November.  These events are a reminder of the perilous geostrategic situation in Afghanistan, where it is essential to monitor Iran’s threat activities on one border, and Pakistan’s activities can’t always be distinguished from those of the Taliban on the other.

The New York Times reports foreign sources and US experts saying that the RQ-170 was probably on a mission to conduct surveillance of Iranian nuclear sites.  The drone can operate at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, and provides long-dwell coverage allowing multiple looks at target clusters, over periods in which other surveillance assets would only provide one or zero looks.  Its high-resolution radar may have the most significant sensor technology, for experts from Russia or China.

The drone in the video certainly does not appear to have been shot down.  Iran’s radar coverage is poor for the nation’s eastern areas in any case:  besides not shooting the drone down, the Iranians may not even have detected it in flight, given its low-radar-cross-section design.  If it had flown in from the south or the northwest, where Iran’s radar coverage is better, the likelihood of detection would have been higher.

But it is also unlikely that Iran caused the drone to malfunction through an electronic attack.  Any kind of physical-effects electronic attack would have required affecting the drone at its operating altitude, probably between 35,000 and 50,000 feet.  The ability to do that from the ground is very limited in even the most advanced militaries.  A literal digital attack would have required intruding on the drone’s control signal, with the sophistication to get around the security measures built into its operating systems.

These things are not impossible – Dyer’s First Law of Intelligence is that if you can imagine it, someone is trying to do it – but prior evidence of some kind of capability in this regard would make the probability stronger.  For now, it looks too soon to say exactly why the drone went down.  Fortunately, the RQ-170 was unmanned, and we won’t have to deal with another U-2/Gary Powers incident.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

23 thoughts on “State of play on the drone downed in Iran”

  1. To sum up: you don’t know for sure whether it is an RQ 170, what an RQ170 looks like or what it can do, or what it was up to, or how and why it has come into the hands of the Iranians. Neither do I. The Iranians probably do. Now.

    Clever them. And now our military, having lost our drone has blabbed about having virus problems. Helpful!

    1. Too bad real time reality precludes having nearby drones destroy the drone and every Iranian inspecting it.
      It would have been very popular on You Tube.

      1. By the by, my dog ran off with my portable radio. He dis-assembled it. He is still trying to replicate the technology.
        He thought it was a Sony because it looked like one of their models. He should have it up and running very soon.

    2. Have you thought of becoming a court recorder. You have to wear glasses and wear your hair in a bun.

  2. Obvious motivation for the US is to put out the story that the thing was operating in Afghanistan….and if somehow it strayed into iranian air space it only did so because it wasn’t in our control.
    The affirmation is to serve as a denial.

  3. Maybe the hidden destruct charge has instructions to wait until the hidden sensors detect Achmedinejad’s DNA or voice pattern.

  4. If keeping some of the drone’s technology out of other nation’s hands is prudent… why not put a self-destruct mechanism in the vehicle? Perhaps satellite radio operated, or a self-timer set to detonate after each mission should have ended. It seems easy enough to do and the particular methodology chosen simply the best engineering choice. Set it up so any tampering with accessing the drone without using the proper protocols detonates the self-destruct mechanism. GPS locating systems have been around for decades, installing one would be easy, then if the vehicles not moving…(it’s a drone) then it’s on the ground, so blow it up! DUH…

    The people authorizing, implementing and developing these devices are being paid very large sums of money, yet once again prove that stupidity is infinite…

  5. There wasn’t any nifty new technology on the drone. It was sent into Iran to test their defenses and it sent back whatever info it could pick up in that line. They didn’t want to lose it but it’s not the end of the world. They’re also closely monitoring Iranian responses to the blasts that keep going off. There’s some serious screaming in mullah land.

    1. No, none of the facilities on the usual short-list are in eastern Iran. The Sentinel could easily reach them from across the border, however.

      That said, there have been reports of a nuclear warhead testing site in northeast Iran. Not that it has necessarily been used yet, just that there is a facility where such a test would be likely to be conducted. IAEA has actually installed a seismic sensor across the border in Turkmenistan (I can’t immediately find the link for that, but I recall putting it in a piece I did on the Iran nuke problem in the last couple of years).

      The RQ-170 could perform standoff collection over some distance using a radar sensor, but not more than 40-50 miles at its max altitude. It IS a good question whether it would go far enough into Iran to do surveillance of the best-known nuclear compounds. The closer you get to them from the east, the better the Iranian radar picture.

  6. I dunno… It looked like a serious “radar target” to me… a “hopeless diamond” sort of mechanical dummy. The color was weird.. but that might be an artifact of the photo. The grating on the intake looked more like chicken wire to keep out the bird strikes… and the intake looked too big and “unshaped”. It’s hard to explain because it’s an eyeball thing with me… like I can hang level pictures without a level… sort of stuff… I certainly am not a Stealth engineer, but that cheap chicken wire on a gaping maw just looks wrong for a sophisticated over the fuselage intake. I am a long time modeler though and the intake contours just don’t look all that “stealthy”.

    I get the feeling that this was a dumb fiberglass dummy drone. A cut out with some passive sensors of garden variety, and a rudimentary but serviceable flight control system. It lost power or contact, and was light enough to flutter to the ground relatively undamaged. The flying wing is 70 years old now. It strikes me as odd that the drone wouldn’t have had a serious “dead-man” self-destruct.

    I am just not completely buying the whole thing.


  7. We are underestimating the Russians, as usual.
    Seems like Russian supplied ELINT is a bit better than expected, or, some communication malfunction allowed the drone’s operation to be taken over by the Russian equipment operated by the Iranians. In any case, Russia’s message should be received loud and clear.
    There’s the Kusnetsov’s winter EASTMED cruise and the “announcement” of the delivery of the P-800 (SS-N_26) Yakhont to Syria of course….
    My, my, where’s this all heading?

    1. 8700 civilian DoD jobs cut for starters, announced today…

      The crippling of the Navy by the slow mothballing of the fleet without replacement with combat vs support ships… The Air Force losing two 5th generation fighter planes to overreactions to, instead of corrections of, gold plating and mismanagement.

      Tanks that are 30 years old, and rebuilt more times than a Cuban ’58 Chevy. Personnel carriers that are 30 years old. Troops burdened by politically correct nonsense. A rapid drop off of O-3P’s and O-4’s… due to resignations in disgust, or career dead ends.

      The rapid “gang” infestation of the enlisted ranks and continual lessening of physical and quality standards are taking their toll in the ranks. Too many single mothers, not enough war fighters.

      Bad Joss all the way around.


        1. War time continuous use of heavy equipment (Tanks/Deuce & a 1/2/humvees/towed artillery/etc. etc)
          cause heavy and very quick wear. Tanks are the worst for wear.
          Think of your car in daily driving, then think of your car prepared for the Daytona 500. Modifications to go 200 MPH for hours on end will wear your car out in 500 miles.
          Tanks will last forever if you are just going to the market.

          1. don’t think that we’ve put much heavy wear on our tanks in a while and don’t see that we’re likely to be having many tank battles in the next decade.

            Using them to go to market is a good idea, but they aren’t gonna reach that 55mph and tend to take up more than one lane, but you sure can hang a heck of a lot of grocery sacks from the big gun….almost enough to offset the fuel bill.

            1. Fuster…. you wouldn’t know what a tank was or what it took to operate one if someone parked an M48A3 on your abode and jitterbugged it…..

              The M1 Abrams is a tough design… circa 1971-1980… The most current platforms the latest M1A2SEP (M1A3) is 20… torsion bars, suspension components and running gear get old. Armor gets oxidized and brittle. Turret rings wear just using the gear.. sand and dust play havoc with everything and increase wear.

              New M1 tanks are becoming increasingly impossible to build because the machinery, tooling, specialized metallurgical equipment, and raw human expertise is rapidly disappearing.

              The suspension systems for the Humvee’s were not designed for the weight of the armor being loaded on to them. The vehicle life is easily 1/3 of the original design. The new mine resistant armored cars are very limited us and crippled in cross country function since they are ponderous, top heavy, and not designed for General Purpose uses.

              My analogy to a Cuban 58 Chevy stands… you can’t fight wars with old, tired, worn-out, rebuilt equipment. Some of it is ok for training, but it is ineffective and dangerous to its users in actual wartime.

              And we are in a war, whether you like it or not…


    1. If so, let’s hope it is better thought out than the DOJ projects, We don’t need a “half-fast and felonious drone-walking.”

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