The United States on Sunday appeared to give credence to Iranian state media reports that Iran had come into possession of a downed U.S. surveillance drone.
The American-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan issued a brief statement Sunday saying that an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft had gone missing while on a mission in western Afghanistan late last week.
“The UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan last week,” the ISAF public affairs office said in the statement sent to Yahoo News and other media outlets Sunday, in response to queries on the Iranian reports. “The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”
The semi-official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported Sunday that Iran’s armed forces had brought down a U.S. spy drone in the east of the country.
Citing an “informed military official” the IRNA report “noted that the unmanned craft is of the type ‘RQ170,’ which was slightly damaged [and] is currently in the hands of the Iranian forces.”
While the IRNA headline described the U.S. spy drone as having been “shot down,” an Iranian military official quoted on Iranian state television claimed that an Iranian military cyber-warfare unit “managed to take over controls of the drone and bring it down,” the Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink noted. That latter account would seem to be more in line with the description given by ISAF of the spy drone operators having “lost control” of it in western Afghanistan last week.
American officials disputed that the drone had been shot down. One unidentified U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal the drone may have been suffering mechanical difficulties.
However, there have been previous reported incidents that have highlighted vulnerabilities in the security of U.S. drone information systems.
The United States Air Force acknowledged in October that a computer virus had infected the computer system at Creech Air Force base in Nevada that is used to remotely operate Predator and Reaper drones. In 2009, an Iraqi insurgent hacked into a U.S. drone down-link, which is not usually encrypted, cyber security expert James Lewis, a former Reagan administration official with the Center for Strategic and Institutional Studies, told Yahoo News last month.
“Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations,” the Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman, Yochi Dreazen and August Cole reported in December 2009.
“Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems,” the Journal report said. “Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.”
The unarmed stealth drone Iran claims to have brought down, the RQ-170 Sentinel, is manufactured by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program, based in Palmdale, California.
Until 2009, the U.S. Air Force would say little about the model, despite reported sightings of it on the tarmac at Kandahar International Airport, Afghanistan since 2007. A December 2009 photo of the RQ-170 posted on aviation websites, however, prompted the Air Force to at least acknowledge the plane’s existence, Military Times’ Michael Hoffman reported in 2009:
“For two years, the RQ-170 has been the Air Force’s Bigfoot,” Hoffman wrote. “Photos and drawings of the stealthy UAV, also called the ‘Beast of Kandahar,’ have surfaced, producing shrugs and no-comments from service officials. In early December, a clear photograph of the jet’s left side appeared on aviation Web sites, perhaps prompting the Air Force to ‘fess up.”
However, Air Force officials have not explained what the stealth aircraft is doing in Afghanistan given the fact that the Taliban has no air force or radar, Hoffman noted.
“Experts such as Phil Finnegan, a UAV analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm, suggest the stealth capabilities are being used to fly in nearby countries,” Hoffman wrote. “Neighboring Iran has an air force and air defense system that would require stealth technology to penetrate.”
The RQ-170 was also reportedly used in U.S. surveillance surrounding the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan last May.
The RQ-170 reportedly does not use the most sophisticated U.S. military technology because as a single engine UAV, it was judged to have a higher likelihood of occasionally going down.