Iran seizes a U.S. Stealth Drone by taking over controls. Maybe… And what about that Predator virus?

Dec 04 2011 - 9 Comments

According to the Iranian Fars news agency, on Dec. 4, Iran’s army downed a U.S. remotely controlled spyplane, along the country’s eastern border. Although no image of the wreckage was released so far, the American drone was described as an intruding RQ-170 Sentinel, first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007 and since then dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar”.

This is the fourth time this year Iran claims to have shot down a U.S. drone. No images have ever been released of the previous downed drone hence, unless a photographic evidence is disclosed, we can’t be sure a downing did happen.

The spy drone is currently seized “with very little damage” meaning that, provided a drone was really lost in Iran, it was not hit by any anti-aircraft system. Indeed, unless it was an extremely lucky shot, I think Iran has not the equipment and capability to intercept and destroy a radar evading Sentinel. Most probably, the robot suffered some kind of failure or lost satellite guidance during a covert surveillance mission: an almost conventional mission of the long lasting unconventional stealth war to the Iranian nuclear program.

Noteworthy, according to an unnamed military official quoted by state TV, Iran’s cyber warfare unit managed to take over controls of the Sentinel and bring it down. Is it possible? Maybe, otherwise I would not explain why the RQ-170 was not remotely destroyed with a kill-switch reportedly used on such systems to prevent them from going in the wrong hands. Such self-destruction systems are designed to bring down the drone should its pilot lose satellite link from the mobile ground control station.

The stealthy UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is one of the most precious of the U.S. arsenal and it is believed to have taken part in Operation Neptune’s Spear (or “Operation Geronimo”) the Navy SEALs raid for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, that revealed the existence of the famous Stealth Black Hawk.

The RQ-170 is flown by Air Combat Command’s 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., and the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nev. Creech AFB is the same from where MQ-1 Predators, those whose mobile ground control stations were infected with a computer virus.

If the most important U.S. drones suffered a malware attack are we sure Sentinels can’t be hacked by Iranian military?

First, we have to be sure an RQ-170 was really downed….

Update: someone asked me to explain what I meant for “hacking” a Sentinel.

I’m not suggesting someone was able to hack the drone and land it. Maybe disrupting/jamming the satellite link with the mobile ground control station and inhibit its self-destruction system would be enough. Then, the uncontrolled drone could crash land with minor damages.

Image source: Internet

  • TJ

    ISAF says drone lost over Afghanistan late last week

    (Reuters) – A surveillance drone flying over western Afghanistan had gone out of control late last week and may be the one Iran said it had shot down over its own airspace, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said on Sunday.

    “The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week. The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status,” an ISAF statement said.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/04/us-iran-usa-drone-idUSTRE7B30CQ20111204

    • http://cencio4.wordpress.com/ David Cenciotti

      Yes, thanks I have already read it. However I’m still curious to know whether these drones are equipped with the self kill switch and why it didn’t work this time.

  • Ano N. Ymous

    How likely to succeed would be a scheme to fool the drone with false GPS signals to think it’s on course to base when in fact going quite the opposite way, and fool it to land inside Iran instead of back at Kandahar (or wherever it was supposed to)?

  • himynameis

    No self kill switch. Temporary loss of satellite connection is common and the drone will orbit on a preplanned route until connection is re-established. If the connection is never re-established then the aircraft will eventually run out of fuel and crash. This can happen if the the encryption keys are invalidated during rollover and were not properly loaded (among other possibilities). Prior to fuel exhaustion, standard procedure is to perform classified data erase, followed by software data erase. A recovery team is supposed to follow up and secure it or blow it up. In this case it appears the recovery team couldn’t find it.

    • George Richards

      Hi Himynamis,

      I am a writer currently involved in a project that addresses this very issue. I am very impressed with your knowledge and would very much like to pick your brain about this matter. If you could contact me, I’d really appreciate it: georich15 (at) gmail.com

      I would be respectful of your time and keep things brief.

      Thanks,

      George Richards

  • himynameis

    @anon the UAV uses a an intertial nav system just like normal aircraft. Typically GPS aids the INS with the aircraft navigation solution, so if you were able to impersonate GPS, then you’d get some hybrid of the 2 solutions and it wouldn’t go where you wanted it. But the problem is even harder because this is mil-gps so you need the P-code encryption keys. Even worse, you need to somehow jam the real satellites while still allowing your impersonated gps to reach the aircraft…not easy to do on the ground, but pretty much impossible when the drone is at altitude

    • http://cencio4.wordpress.com/ David Cenciotti

      Hi Himynameis,
      I’m about to write a post about your explainations and theory of the recovery team. Can you send me an email at cencio4(at)gmail.com?
      Thanks

  • Allan Torrey

    This is the sloppiest case of protecting secret weaponry I’ve ever heard of. No password protection, no failsafe system. Nice work, guys. How long will it take Iran to reverse engineer this weapon? How long before they can make both defensive and offensive use of them?

  • charles

    Maybe its the U.S. intent. Now Iran has a stealth unmanned delivery system to deliver thier nukes to Israel. WWIII