Iran has just released footage that proves it has, if not literally decoded, at least accessed some of the data stored inside the U.S. stealthy RQ-170 drone captured in December 2011.
The video, that was aired by an Iranian TV, as part of an interview in which Sardar Hajizadeh, the Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Forces, tells how the drone was captured and how its technology was successfully accessed and decoded, is the first evidence Iran has found something interesting in the unmanned aircraft’s intelligence gathering sensors and internal hard disks.
So far, Iran claims were never backed by evidences: some blurry details about its activity in California and Afghanistan and some unrelevant information; data that could be retrieved with a little of OSINT (Open Source INTelligence) and some spying.
Now, the new video clearly shows footage recorded by the drone underbelly camera: the area surrounding Kandahar airfield (KAF) as the RQ-170 is about to land, a small building (possibly being spied), a C-130 and at least one Reaper drone among shelters at KAF.
Nothing really special, still something that clearly shows Iranians did find something inside the Sentinel and were able to extract and decode it.
Hence, the drone’s internal memories still contained some useful information and were not fully automatically erased as a consequence of the loss of control procedure. To such an extent data, including video recordings from the drone’s FLIR turret, was recovered.
Noteworthy, some still images (that you can find in the longer video here below) show the drone immediately after being recovered in the desert and, later, moved with a helicopter sling load.
How the “Beast of Kandahar” crash landed in Iran remains a mystery: Tehran claims it was hacked, but the stealth drone, undetected by any radar, might have crash landed for a failure somewhere in eastern Iran where it was found (possibly by accident). And where the U.S. could not blow it up.
In the last of a series of similar claims, a senior Iranian commander announced that Tehran has just extracted all the data stored in the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone which was captured last year.
“All the intelligence existing in this drone has been completely decoded and extracted and we know each and every step it has taken (during its missions),” Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said, according to the FARS News Agency.
Noteworthy, he went on to say: “The US President (Barack Obama) had told the Israeli officials that the drone was tasked with spying on Iran’s nuclear program, but our experts found after decoding the drone that it had not performed even a single nuclear mission over Iran.”
Although it is possible that the batwing’s internal memories were not completely wiped out following the loss of satellite link with the ground control station in spite of the automatic erase that should start as a consequence of the loss of control procedure to prevent data from being recovered, it’s hard to believe something really interesting was still stored on the Sentinel when it was recovered.
Most probably, pre-planned waypoints, routes, other navigation stuff, along with some radio communication setting to establish satellite links with the remote control station: something quite “interesting” to understand the procedures used by the U.S. to spy on Iran, to guess the preferred routes, the operating altitudes, but nothing really crucial, especially if we consider that, unlike the X-47B, the RQ-170 is no longer the American cutting edge robot tech.
On the other side, as already explained, the circuitry, lenses, memories and sensors that survived the crash landing might have been evaluated, tested, copied and, possibly, improved with the help of Russia and China.
Dating back to Oct. 10, 2012, the following report (brought to my attention by Giuliano Ranieri – thanks!), aired by Al-Manar TV (Lebanon) and made available on Youtube by the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) TV, shows what seems to be the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured by Iran in December 2011.
According to the information being spread by Chinese Defense forums, a group of 17 Chinese expert would have recently arrived in Iran not only to inspect, but also to collect and bring back to China some key components of the U.S. RQ-170 drone captured by Iran in December 2011.
Indeed, Chinese technical experts had already arrived in Iran only four days after the Sentinel drone had crash landed in Iran during a spy mission. Based on the first surveys (one lasting only 40 minutes, another one four hours) the expert group prepared a list of components they need to further inspect in China in order to reverse engineer the U.S. robot.
The list would include internal hardware components; the fuselage would remain in Iran.
“The expert group composed by 17 people, of which a total of 11 are technical experts from PLA General Staff, General Armament Department and AVIC, as well as others from Chinese foreign affairs ministry and diplomats in Iran” says the China Defense Mashup site.
Although it’s extremely difficult to say whether this information is genuine, I find it extremely likely that China has already inspected the drone and tried to copy some of the technologies of the RQ-170. As already explained when commenting Iran’s claims that they had decoded the stealthy drone, while the internal memories were (probably) automatically erased as a consequence of the loss of control procedure and data will never been recovered, the circuitry, lenses, sensors have probably survived the mysterious crash landing.
If you point your Google Earth client towards Palmdale, California, you will find a very interesting imagery signature at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program Facility.
Widely known as “Skunk Works” LM’s Advanced Development Program Facility is where some of the most adveniristic “black projects” are developed.
Although it’s a bit hard to believe that any new drone (or secret variant of a known one) would be quietly sitting open-air for any satellite to see, what Open Source GEOINT has found is at least worth a mention.
The wingspan exceeds the one of a radar evading Sentinel and the left wing appears to be slightly broken, as if the packaged drone was damaged.
Image credit: OSGEOINT
As OSGEOINT’s George Kaplan notes:
“Although the signature above does not conform to any known UAV, it’s possible this could be anything from a mock-up to a failed design. (However, if it were a mock-up, why would LM feel the need to cover it?).”
“Measurements taken from imagery suggests the craft is roughly the same size as the RQ-170 at 4.8 meters while the wingspan is considerably larger–when compared to open source estimates–at 16.60 meters.”
Therefore, it has more or less the same shape and size of an RQ-170 and the packaging, for protective reasons rather than security and confidentiality) could extend beyond the wingtips.
And, incidentally, the satellite image was taken on Dec. 4, the same day when the radar-evading drone crash landed somewhere in Iran during a spying mission.