I’ve been hesitant and careful about entering into the debate about how the downed U.S. stealth drone came to crash inside Iran. The U.S. claims it “lost contact” with the aircraft. Iran originally claimed it “shot down” the RQ-170, also known as the Beast of Kandahar (the base from which it operates). More recently it claimed that it hacked the controls of the drone and caused it to land. The Iranians have displayed video of the captive prize and it appears largely intact. So it certainly wasn’t shot down. But whether its capture was a mishap or a deliberate case of cyber-hacking by the Iranians is an open question.
Defense Update, an Israeli defense industry publication, reported the Iranian claims and bolstered their credibility by noting that Russia recently sold Iran advanced cyber-technology that might enable it to sabotage the communications system of such a surveillance craft:
Iran’s semi-official news agency Press TV quoted a senior official saying the Iran’s electronic warfare unit successfully targeted the Sentinel drone after it crossed into Iranian airspace over the Eastern border with Afghanistan.
…According to Flight International DEW Line blog by Stephen Trimble, Iran has recently received a shipment of Russian 1L222 Avtobaza, a ground mobile electronic intelligence system, designed to spoof airborne fire control and ‘side looking’ radars (commonly referring to synthetic aperture radars); It is also capable of intercepting weapon datalink communications operating on similar wavebands. The new gear may have helped the Iranians employ active deception/jamming to intercept and ‘hijack’ the Sentinel’s control link.
A reporter I know consulted a robotics expert who said that it was “quite possible” the Iranians hacked the controls of the drone using the technology referenced above. This is not conclusive, of course, but it is suggestive. The journalist also raised the important point that since the U.S. is claiming it “lost contact” with the craft before it crashed, we can’t possibly know whether the communications were hacked. In fact, it’s quite possible that we lost contact with it precisely because the Iranians took it over by jamming our signals and replacing them with their own.
UPDATE: The AP’s Doug Birch has an interesting follow up on this subject. Among the things he notes is that the Russians and Chinese would have great interest in helping the Iranians down an advanced U.S. drone.