Iran Shows Downed Spy Drone as U.S. Assesses Technology Loss

Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee
The “blatant and unprovoked” air violation “is tantamount to an act of hostility,” Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said in the letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, current president of the Security Council. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The unmanned RQ-170 Sentinel is still highly classified, yet since one came down in Iran five days ago, it’s a lot less secret.

Three U.S. defense officials said the plane the Iranians displayed on television yesterday appears to be the Lockheed Martin Corp. RQ-170 that controllers lost contact with on Dec. 4. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have declined to comment on the matter.

Three U.S. intelligence officials said the greatest concern now is that the Iranians will give Russian or Chinese scientists access to the aircraft, which is designed to be virtually invisible to radar and carries advanced communications and surveillance gear.

Studying it may give two technologically sophisticated potential adversaries insight into the unmanned spy plane’s flight controls, communications gear, video equipment and self-destruct, holding pattern or return-to-base mechanisms, officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the RQ-170 is part of a Secret Compartmented Intelligence (SCI) program, a classification higher than Top Secret, and because the investigation into the loss of the drone is also classified.

Reverse Engineering

In addition, they said, the remains of the RQ-170 could help the Russians, Chinese, Iranians or others develop Infrared Surveillance and Targeting (IRST) or Doppler radar technology that under some conditions are capable of detecting stealth aircraft such as drones and the new Lockheed Martin F-35s.

There also is a danger that the fallen Sentinel’s shape, special coatings, control surfaces, engine inlet and other unique qualities could help other countries develop or improve their own radar-evading aircraft, such as China’s J-20 stealth fighter.

“There is the potential for reverse engineering, clearly,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said yesterday during a taping of the television show “This Week in Defense News,” according to Air Force Times. “Ideally, one would want to maintain the American advantage. That certainly is in our minds.”

If the jet “comes into the possession of a sophisticated adversary, there’s not much the U.S. could do about it,” he said.

The intelligence officials said that Chinese or Russian access to the drone is a greater concern than a possible Iranian effort to reverse-engineer the RQ-170, which they said is unlikely given the drone’s special coatings and other materials.

Stealing Secrets

“Buy, Build or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies,” a new report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, says that stealth technology is a high priority for Beijing since “few things differentiate the lethality of an air force more than the level of technology in its most advanced aircraft.”

“China will likely rely more heavily on espionage to acquire those critical military aviation technologies it cannot acquire legitimately from foreign suppliers or develop on its own,” the report concludes.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration didn’t seriously consider bombing the wreckage or sending special operations forces into Iran to destroy or retrieve it because either would be an act of war, two U.S. officials said.

Hacking Claim

Reverse engineering the Sentinel or its components would be difficult and time consuming, the intelligence officials said. The most troubling prospect is that the Iranians’ second claim about how they brought it down -- by hacking into its controls and landing it themselves -- might be true, said one of the intelligence officials .

The official said the possibility that the Iranians, perhaps with help from China or Russia, hacked into the drone’s satellite communications is doubly alarming because it would mean that Iranian or other cyber-warfare officers were able to disable the Sentinel’s automatic self-destruct, holding pattern and return-to-base mechanisms.

Those are intended to prevent the plane’s secret flight control, optical, radar, surveillance and communications technology from falling into the wrong hands if its controllers at Creech Lake Air Force Base or the Tonopah Test Range, both in Nevada, lose contact with it.

Targeting Computer Networks

In recent years, one of the officials said, computer hackers thought to be part of extensive Chinese or Russian cyber espionage efforts have attacked the computer networks of numerous defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin; broken into two satellite ground stations and planted keystroke logging software in some military computers -- including some that are used to control some U.S. drones.

It isn’t known whether that malware has been found in RQ-170 computers, or only in those used to control less advanced drones such as the Predator and Reaper, made by General Atomics Aeronautical of San Diego, that are used by the Air Force and CIA in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

Two U.S. intelligence officials said that while the drones’ and other military and intelligence computer networks are kept separate from the public Internet, investigators have uncovered what they said are numerous instances when thumb drives containing Chinese and other malware have infected classified networks. Often, they said, such infections have spread quickly and proved very difficult to eradicate.

Television Debut

The drone made a 2 1/2 minute television debut yesterday on Iran’s state-owned Press TV channel. Two U.S. officials with knowledge of the RQ-170 program said that some details, including the seams on the drone’s fuselage, its access ports and its unusual air intake, appear to confirm that it’s genuine.

The official Iranian Republic News Agency reported that the Foreign Ministry protested the “violation of Iran’s airspace by a U.S. spy drone on Dec. 4,” the day Iranian forces claimed to have shot down the aircraft 140 miles inside the Iranian border from Afghanistan.

The RQ-170 was flying a reconnaissance mission inside Iranian airspace when its controllers lost contact with it, U.S. officials said.

The officials said that for three years the U.S. has been flying two types of unmanned surveillance missions over Iran and along the Afghanistan-Iran border from a 9,200-foot runway at a former Soviet airbase in Shindand in western Afghanistan’s Herat province.

In addition to monitoring construction and other activity at suspected Iranian nuclear facilities from high altitudes, the officials said, the CIA has been using drones to monitor cross-border traffic and Iranian support for insurgents.

The CIA, not the Air Force, flies the missions inside Iran so they are covert operations that the U.S. government can deny.

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