Even if official sources have already confirmed that a (stealthy) US robot was lost, it is still unclear whether the RQ-170’s mission took it over Iran where it was downed/crash landed, or it violated the Iranian airspace “accidentally”, because of technical failures.
While the possibility that it was hacked and guided to Iran by Iranian special cyber forces is still under debate, a visitor of this site (using a nickname but providing a valid and known email address) provided an interesting explaination on the Sentinel and the way it is operated.
First of all he said that Sentinel has no self-kill switch hence self-destruction is not part of the procedure intended to take care of a lost ‘bot.
Then, he added:
“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.”
After receiving the above comment I’ve tried to contact the reader (who has already mailed me in the past and commented about some technical details of my articles – btw he’s quite competent) in order to better understand whether he knows for sure a recovery team was dispatched to secure the “Beast of Kandahar” before it went in wrong hands or it was just an hypothesis based on the normal operating procedures (with the most likely possibility being the latter). Unfortunately, he decided it was better not to reply.
Although the theory of a special team infiltrating in Iran to recover the lost UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is quite intriguing, maybe it’s even a bit far fetched. It’s hard to believe that any U.S. troops would be cleared with “boots on the ground” behind the enemy lines in a period of crisis.
However, a CIA operation, backed by local people (dissidents), that would confirm that the US have joined the on-going Israel’s covert war on Iran involving computer viruses and drones, is not completely impossible .
Until a few months ago even a secret operation in Pakistan involving special forces and assets, involving a brand new stealthy chopper, would have seemed more suited to a movie script than something likely to happen. But history proved that reality can be stranger than fiction.
Dealing with the possibility that a rogue GPS can be used to to fool the drone to think it’s on the pre-planned course to base when in fact going on the opposite direction, the same reader, who defined himself “a guy with some knowledge” says:
“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.”
Can the RQ-170 Sentinel be reverse-engineered as probably attempted by China with the Stealth Black Hawk? If it is almost intact, it can be useful to get a much closer look. However, unlike the radar evading chopper crash landed at Abbottabad, the Sentinel is not “new”. Hence its shape is known, its materials not so different from many others widely used on some of the current very well known stealth planes. Probably, the most interesting things are those inside it, like the onboard cameras or the satellite guidance systems with all the communication suites and encryption modules.
But if it was intact we would see the pictures of it right now.
Stay tuned. This story is not over.
Image source: AW&ST