State of play on the drone downed in Iran

posted at 11:10 am on December 9, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

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 The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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One of the first things we did when we entered the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan was to provide munitions including guided missiles. I assumed (and hoped) that missiles such as stingers were provided with a hard shelf life such they would blow up if disassembly was attempted or after a few years. That was a vain hope. I recently read that some stingers are still in the black market.

I think it is stupid to have very secret weapons in a bad area when the weapons don’t auto distruct or command distruct if they leave friendly hand.

burt on December 9, 2011 at 3:34 PM

Sounds good, but I don’t buy it…they built this mockup overnight? No.

More time than that.

How can someone explain losing contact with a drone and it falling to the earth and looking like that? And even if it somehow landed, wouldn’t the landing cause damage? What? Did it land on a smooth runway in West Afghanistan/Eastern Iran?

Unless somehow the controls were taken over and it was landed safely somewhere, that’s got to be a mockup.

SteveMG on December 9, 2011 at 3:34 PM

Note to newbies.

Most of the stuff y’all are bringing up has already been answered. Either in the original Green room post, the articles linked in this article, or the responses posted here. There are lots of knowledgeable folks here in many fields.

cozmo on December 9, 2011 at 3:40 PM

How can someone explain losing contact with a drone and it falling to the earth and looking like that? And even if it somehow landed, wouldn’t the landing cause damage? ….

SteveMG on December 9, 2011 at 3:34 PM

Drones just like other remote controlled tech assets such as satellites will go into a controlled loop in an attempt to re-orient themselves to get comms going again. If comms have been compromised or jammed the aircraft would fly a looping pattern until it ran out of fuel. It would still have power to control the avionics while it descended without propulsion. Enough to have a low energy crash.

Egfrow on December 9, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Also, Use google earth to look at Iran’s Terrain. It’s very flat and desert like. Good way to recover a plane.

Egfrow on December 9, 2011 at 3:45 PM

It is not unusual for Iran to manufacture military hardware from wishes and imagination. I.e. their long range missiles and nuclear weapons. For that matter it is not unusual for US to have unicorn factories, too. The main one is Washington, DC.

Caststeel on December 9, 2011 at 3:56 PM

Any chance this could be a type of “Trojan horse?” – Either to deliver something malicious or for deliberate misinformation. It could be used to deliver an example of technology that your enemy tries to replicate but is a dead end because it never really works as intended. Or something that if implemented creates a vulnerability that can be exploited in the future. I remember a story about a dead body with a suitcase containing top secret information handcuffed to it that was set adrift in WWII – with the intent of it getting into German hands for misinformation regarding D-day (I think). The drone looks just too good. A smashed pile of parts would seem more believable.

Bourgeoisie on December 9, 2011 at 3:57 PM

Here is a industry journal on stealth technologies and how they countered. Russians already have Radar that can spot stealth aircraft.

Egfrow on December 9, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Autonomous Drones would be a big improvement but replacing a skilled pilot is decades away.

Egfrow on December 9, 2011 at 3:24 PM

Semi-autonomous is reality. If by “autonomous” you mean “decision-making” then ,yes, a decade away.

The problem isn’t making “decisions”, it’s which decisions to make. This problem is shared with human pilots…reflect on decades of air-war history.

Who is John Galt on December 9, 2011 at 4:29 PM

What I’m trying to say is that there are no secrets on this drone. If we really lost a high classified drone, there would be nothing in the news about it. And we would have had a retrieval team going after it. . .

platypus on December 9, 2011 at 1:34 AM

You’re assuming a much higher level of competence—and patriotism—in this Administration than appears to be the case. These are people who think our enemies really are our friends; we just have to be more sympathetic to them. “Oh how nice! You got one of our super-secret drones. We hope you have fun with it!”

MrLynn on December 9, 2011 at 5:39 PM

Aren’t these things black anyway???

Vodkanockers on December 9, 2011 at 6:13 PM

If this administration had any competence or guts there would have been a team in place lazing the target and dropping a thousand pounds of American justice on top of that Iranian celebration… Oh well.

ghettogasman on December 9, 2011 at 6:43 PM

wrong drone pictured. That’s Boeing’s recon/attack drone, the Phantom Ray.
The one you want is the Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel.

rayra on December 9, 2011 at 9:31 PM

Here is a industry journal on stealth technologies and how they countered. Russians already have Radar that can spot stealth aircraft.

Egfrow on December 9, 2011 at 4:08 PM

so do we. During the initial flight tests of the B-2, they were attachign mylar panels to the airframe to get a good tracking radar return from it. Then some clever tech noticed the dopler radar could track the wake / atmospheric disturbance right behind the plane.

rayra on December 9, 2011 at 9:33 PM

Looks like Mars in the background, there.

The Nerve on December 10, 2011 at 12:27 AM

That drone looks really cheesy. Also, why does it have the same grill as a 1958 Edsel? I thought these gizmos were supposed to be stealthy? And this supposedly crashed from thousands of feet in the air? Uh huh.

gordo on December 10, 2011 at 9:28 AM

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