Home US & World News BACKGROUND: Hot debate over whether Iran displayed real or fake RQ-170 spy drone

BACKGROUND: Hot debate over whether Iran displayed real or fake RQ-170 spy drone

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The U.S. briefly considered invading Iran in an attempt to retrieve a stealth RQ-170 spy drone it lost on Dec. 4, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.[1]  --  But U.S. officials -- the president, presumably -- "concluded such a secret operation wasn't worth the risk of provoking a more explosive clash with Tehran," Julian E. Barnes said.  --  While U.S. officials refused to discuss the RQ-170 on the record, Asia Times Online quoted Jason Campbell, a military analyst with the RAND Corporation, who said:  "What makes this particular drone quite useful, from an intelligence perspective, is that it can fly at extremely high altitudes -- reportedly up to 50,000 feet.  It is capable of staying in the air for hours at a time, which is a luxury you don't have with satellite imagery.  [It has] multiple sensors on it; it can intercept electronic communications, it can take air samples to detect whether or not there is any chemicals or other unusual things in the air that might lead one to believe that there is, in the case of Iran, a nuclear program that is active in the area. . . . And it also takes what's called 'full-motion video' on the ground, where you're not just taking pictures of hardened targets, you're able to see the comings and goings of individuals and other movement on the ground, which is, again a capability that isn't offered by satellite."[2]  --  John Pike, an analyst for the website GlobalSecurity.org, has speculated that "the drone that was shown on Iranian TV looked like 'a parade-float model' rather than the high-tech robotic surveillance aircraft itself, and speculated that it was 'a mock-up,'" Heather Maher reported.  --  Some say the U.S. is already engaged in low-level warfare against Iran, the Associated Press reported Saturday, and Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser, said that the covert operations in play are "much bigger than people appreciate."[3]  --  "Hadley said that if Iran continues to defy U.N. resolutions and doesn't curb its nuclear ambitions, the quiet conflict 'will only get nastier,'" according to Douglas Birch.  --  Some U.S. experts speculated that Iran may now have a greater capacity to counter drones because of "Russia's decision, announced in October, to sell Tehran an advanced truck-mounted electronic intelligence system."  --  The website Defense Systems noted that one U.S. official has confirmed the Iranian video shows the RQ-170, but another argued that it is a fake:  "First, the vehicle does not look like one that lost control and crashed, the UAV expert told AOL Defense.  Second, the Iranians have hung propaganda banners that obscure the landing gear and the bottom of the aircraft, making positive identification difficult.  Third, it is not the correct color.  Fourth, the welds on the wing joints are not the kind used on a stealth aircraft."  --  Wired's Danger Room blog opined that "it's wise to view these photos skeptically."[5]  --  David Axe said that "In private, U.S. officials and aviation insiders are just as divided about the drone display: some swear its authentic; others are sure it's bunk."  --  As for Popular Science, on Thursday it endorsed the notion that "the Iranians really have the drone and that the drone appears to be intact."[6] ...

1.

Middle East News

U.S. MADE COVERT PLAN TO RETRIEVE IRAN DRONE

By Julian E. Barnes

Wall Street Journal

December 7, 2011

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204770404577082822643123332.html


U.S. officials considered conducting a covert mission inside Iran to retrieve or destroy a stealth drone that crashed late last week, but ultimately concluded such a secret operation wasn't worth the risk of provoking a more explosive clash with Tehran, a U.S. official said.

Tehran said it shot down the unmanned craft.  [NOTE:  In fact, Tehran has said it hacked into the drone's software and then landed it. --R.T.]

But the U.S. official said the drone developed mechanical difficulties and remote pilots lost control of the aircraft, and said officials knew immediately it had crashed in eastern Iran.  [NOTE: In fact, Iranian video shows that the drone is almost perfectly intact.  --R.T.]

Initially, officials in Washington didn't believe Iran had detected the drone crash. 

The stealth drone was developed for the Air Force, but was flying under the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency when its remote pilots lost control of it late last week, said several U.S. officials.

The officials considered various options for retrieving the wreckage of the RQ-170 drone.

Under one plan, a team would be sent to retrieve the aircraft.  U.S. officials considered both sending in a team of American commandos based in Afghanistan as well as using allied agents inside Iran to hunt down the downed aircraft.

Another option would have had a team sneak in to blow up the remaining pieces of the drone.  A third option would have been to destroy the wreckage with an airstrike.

However, the officials worried that any option for retrieving or destroying the drone would have risked discovery by Iran.

"No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident," the U.S. official said.

If an assault team entered the country to recover or destroy the drone, the official said, the U.S. "could be accused of an act of war" by the Iranian government.

Some officials argued in private meetings that because the drone crashed in a remote part of eastern Iran, it might never be discovered, and therefore, leaving the remains where they were could be the safest option.

But on Sunday, an Iranian military official quoted by the state news service claimed Tehran had shot down a U.S. stealth drone -- alerting U.S. officials that the downed drone had been discovered.

U.S. officials denied that the drone had brought down by Iran, either through hacking its satellite link or by shooting it down.

Intelligence and military officials declined to comment on the specific mission the drone was flying when it crashed.

George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, declined to comment on the discussions over options to recover the drone.

The military frequently hands over parts of its fleet of drone aircraft to the CIA.  Flying under CIA authority allows the U.S. to conduct operations covertly and if discovered deny the existence of the intelligence mission.

Officials said they were concerned about the remains of the craft falling into Iranian hands, but don't believe the aircraft's technology can be reverse engineered with ease.

The drone is a wing-shaped aircraft, like the stealth bomber, a design that is supposed to make it less visible to radar.

Iranian officials said the craft sustained minor damage.

Among U.S. officials, views vary on the likely extent of damage and the severity of any potential security breach.

Analyzing the materials that contribute to the craft's stealth qualities, for example, wouldn't tell Iranian scientists how to manufacture the necessary coatings.

After Iran claimed to have shot down the drone, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military command in Afghanistan issued a statement that said late last week the U.S. had lost control of one of its drones.

Iran's assertion that it had shot down the drone wasn't the first such claim it has made.

In January, Tehran said its forces shot down drones in the Gulf.  In July, it said it shot down a drone near the city of Qom.

U.S. officials rebutted those claims, and Tehran produced no evidence.

2.

Middle East

TEHRAN PRODS AND POKES CIA DRONES

By Heather Maher

Asia Times Online
December 10, 2011

Iranian television has broadcast a video of a United States drone that Tehran claims to have brought down on its territory, and it's probably safe to say that the images are the stuff of U.S. intelligence officials' nightmares.

In the video, two men dressed in Iranian military uniforms poke and prod at the small, bat-winged aircraft.  One gestures to a wing and appears to be explaining something to a decorated superior.

But what?  Possibly what until now were highly guarded U.S. advances in covert intelligence gathering.

A banner at the foot of the aircraft in the video reads, "The U.S. cannot do a damn thing," which is a direct quotation from Iran's late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran's alleged capture of the drone represents more than just a huge propaganda prize for the regime, which has long been hostile to the United States.  It also could be a bonanza of secret U.S. military technology so sensitive that U.S. officials briefly considered going into Iran to try and retrieve the downed aircraft, according to a report in the *Wall Street Journal*.  The operation was rejected as too risky.

U.S. officials have acknowledged the loss of the plane, but a Pentagon spokesman told reporters on December 8 that officials were "not going to talk about these kinds of missions and these kinds of capabilities."

But U.S. and foreign officials briefed on the matter told the *New York Times* that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone was at the center of a secret program to gather information on possible Iranian nuclear sites.

TOP-SECRET TREASURE TROVE


The United States has used satellites for years to gather intelligence on Iran, which it believes is hiding a nuclear weapons program.  But Jason Campbell, a military analyst with the RAND Corporation, says the RQ-170 possesses new and unique capabilities that take covert intelligence gathering to a new level.

"What makes this particular drone quite useful, from an intelligence perspective, is that it can fly at extremely high altitudes -- reportedly up to 50,000 feet.  It is capable of staying in the air for hours at a time, which is a luxury you don't have with satellite imagery.  [It has] multiple sensors on it; it can intercept electronic communications, it can take air samples to detect whether or not there is any chemicals or other unusual things in the air that might lead one to believe that there is, in the case of Iran, a nuclear program that is active in the area," Campbell says.

"And it also takes what's called 'full-motion video' on the ground, where you're not just taking pictures of hardened targets, you're able to see the comings and goings of individuals and other movement on the ground, which is, again a capability that isn't offered by satellite."

The fear is that Iran, and its close allies China and Russia, will be able to learn and copy those capabilities.

Analysts say the most valuable technology on the drone is probably its ability to detect and gather a vast array of information as it hovers or flies undetected over targets.  Its radar capability may also be much more advanced than either Beijing or Moscow has developed, they say.

Not everything about the RQ-170 Sentinel UAV, which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, is secret.  The first photos of it became public two years ago, and showed it sitting on a U.S. air base in Afghanistan [Shindand Air Base in Herat province].  Its shape is based on the B-2 stealth bomber, which has been in use by the U.S. military since 1997, including during the war between Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 and in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

DID IRAN SHOOT IT DOWN?


Unsurprisingly, there are competing versions of how the drone ended up on the ground.  The chief of the air force of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, General Ami Ali Hajizadeh, said on December 8 that his forces had brought the aircraft down with an electronic ambush.  U.S. officials dismiss that scenario and blame an aircraft malfunction.

When something goes wrong during a drone flight, RAND's Campbell says it is programmed to automatically return to base.  But in this instance, he says, something didn't go according to plan.

"We don't know at this point if there has been some sort of a self-destruct mechanism that kicked in, as it should have, but given that many of these drones, particularly this one, is programmed to automatically return to base should there be a satellite disruption -- which is usually the cause of some of these missteps -- the fact that that wasn't engaged, it may suggest that the self-destruct mechanism wasn't activated," Campbell says.

At least one military expert thinks the Iranians may be bluffing.  John Pike, an analyst for the website GlobalSecurity.org, says the drone that was shown on Iranian TV looked like "a parade-float model" rather than the high-tech robotic surveillance aircraft itself, and speculated that it was "a mock-up."

Since the plane's downing this weekend, analysts and some U.S. officials have said that they don't think it's possible to reverse-engineer the plane's systems and learn how to replicate it.  They have also said that the data the drone collected before it crashed is probably irretrievable.

That's no doubt what U.S. officials hope.

"Unfortunately," the RAND Corporation's Campbell says, "we'll probably never know the full story."

3.

CIA SPY PLANE LOSS EXPOSES COVERT U.S.-IRAN CONFLICT

By Douglas Birch

Associated Press
December 10, 2011

http://www.taiwannews.com.tw/etn/news_content.php?id=1784546


The loss to Iran of the CIA's surveillance drone bristling with advanced spy technology is more than a propaganda coup and intelligence windfall for the Tehran government.  The plane's capture has peeled back another layer of secrecy from expanding U.S. operations against Iran's nuclear and military programs.

Like the Soviet Union's downing of the American U-2 spy plane during the Cold War, Iran's recovery of the drone has cast a spotlight on part of the U.S.-Iran spycraft.

Iran has charged the U.S. or its allies with waging a campaign of cyberwarfare and sabotage, and of assassinating some Iranian scientists.  The U.S. has accused the Iranian government of helping kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and plotting to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

"It's beginning to look like there's a thinly veiled, increasingly violent, global cloak-and-dagger game afoot," Thomas Donnelly, a former government official and military expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said at a Washington conference.

The covert operations in play are "much bigger than people appreciate," said Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser under President George W. Bush.  "But the U.S. needs to be using everything it can."

Hadley said that if Iran continues to defy U.N. resolutions and doesn't curb its nuclear ambitions, the quiet conflict "will only get nastier."

Some historians and foreign policy experts compared the drone incident to the Soviet Union's 1960 downing of the U-2 spy plane and pilot Francis Gary Powers.  While those two countries sparred publicly on many issues, the world only occasionally glimpsed each side's secret operations.

"When I first heard about the drone, my first thought was thank goodness there wasn't a pilot in it," said Francis Gary Powers Jr., the son of the U-2 pilot and founder of the Cold War Museum.

"They were both on intelligence-gathering missions.  They were both doing photo reconnaissance. They were both supporting the U.S. government's intelligence-gathering to find out intelligence about our adversaries," Powers said.  The difference this time, he said, was that "there are no family members that have to be notified, there's no prisoner in a foreign country."

The U-2 downing shocked U.S. military planners, who thought the advanced aircraft flew too high to be hit by a Soviet missile.  Likewise, Iran says it used advanced electronic warfare measures to detect, hack, and bring down an RQ-170 Sentinel drone.

Iran aired TV footage Thursday of what current and former U.S. officials confirm is the missing Sentinel.  The robotic aircraft suffered what appeared to be only minimal damage.

Iran protested Friday to the United Nations about what it described as "provocative and covert operations" by the U.S.  The Tehran government called the flight by the drone a "blatant and unprovoked air violation" that was "tantamount to an act of hostility."

American officials said Friday that U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that Iran played no role in the downing, either by shooting it down or using electronic or cybertechnology to force it from the sky.  They contended the drone malfunctioned.  The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the classified program.

Some U.S. experts expressed skepticism that Iran would be capable of such hacking.  But others said Iran's capacity to counter drones may have been bolstered by Russia's decision, announced in October, to sell Tehran an advanced truck-mounted electronic intelligence system.

The RQ-170 is stealthy but not infallible, said robotics expert Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

Singer, who has written extensively about drones, noted Russia's announcement about the sale of an undisclosed number of truck-mounted electronic intelligence systems, called the IL-222 Avtobaza, to Tehran.

He said the equipment included "really good electronic warfare gear," citing reports that its radars were designed to detect drones and included other equipment intended to intercept their data communications.

No country has demonstrated that it can seize control of a spy drone remotely, said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

But if any could, Karasik said, the likely candidates would include China and Russia, which has conducted research on the subject.  Karasik said either country might have aided Iran against the U.S.

The stealth drone is especially useful to the U.S. because it provides what is called "persistent surveillance" of Iran's nuclear sites.

The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is building a nuclear weapons complex under cover of a civilian program, a charge that Tehran adamantly denies.

John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, an expert on defense and intelligence policy, said that continuous surveillance of such sites from aerial drones can help intelligence analysts track vehicles to other facilities.

The images also can tell military planners when most workers at a site are expected to be on the job, he said, in the event the president orders a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

4.

CAPTURED RQ-170, REAL OR FAKE? YOU DECIDE.


Defense Systems
December 9, 2011

http://defensesystems.com/articles/2011/12/09/agg-rq-170-uav-iran-video.aspx


There’s nothing quite like a spirited debate.  With high-resolution images and video readily available on the Web of the recovered RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle that went down in Iran last week, experts familiar with UAV design and journalists who cover the aviation beat are at odds over whether the photographic and video evidence displayed with bravado by Iranian officials is indeed an actual so-called “Beast of Kandahar.”

Aviation reporter David Cenciotti is believed to be the one who first stumbled upon the high-resolution photos on Iranian Web forums on Dec. 8, the same day the videos were available, reports David Axe at Wired’s Danger Room.  His story has the high-resolution images.

The CIA reported last week losing track of a stealth drone on loan from the Defense Department for a secret mission on the Iran-Afghanistan border.  The Iranians claim to have electronically hacked the RQ-170 and steered it to a soft landing.  U.S. officials, who repeatedly declined to discuss the nature of the mission, flatly refuted that assertion, the Associated Press reports. 

A former U.S. official said the aircraft displayed in a two-minute video was indeed the RQ-170 Sentinel, but offered no explanation for the opinion, reports the Associated Press.  In contrast, a former DOD official with extensive experience in UAVs said that a close examination of the visual evidence reveals a wealth of evidence that indicates the vehicle shown is fake, reports Colin Clark at AOL Defense.

First, the vehicle does not look like one that lost control and crashed, the UAV expert told AOL Defense.  Second, the Iranians have hung propaganda banners that obscure the landing gear and the bottom of the aircraft, making positive identification difficult.  Third, it is not the correct color.  Fourth, the welds on the wing joints are not the kind used on a stealth aircraft.

5.

Danger Room

HIGH-REZ PHOTOS FUEL DEBATE OVER CAPTURED STEALTH DRONE

By David Axe

Wired

December 9, 2011

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/12/high-rez-pics-stealth-drone/?pid=1028&pageid=66199&viewall=true

Some observers say it's real.  Others insist it's a mock-up.  In any event, photos have surfaced allegedly depicting the secretive RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone that went down in eastern Iran last week, apparently while spying on Tehran's nuke sites for the CIA.

The pics come on the same day as videos purporting to show the downed Sentinel. Aviation reporter David Cenciotti first spotted the high-resolution photos on Iranian Web forums.

The circumstances surrounding the RQ-170's crash are still unclear, and considering Iran's history of elaborate fakery, it's wise to view these photos skeptically.  Apparent damage to the airframe, visible in several photos, could be evidence of its (surprisingly soft) crash-landing, or convincing details added by Iranian agents eager to prove a big win against the U.S.  As Bill Sweetman notes, the wings appear to have been removed, and stuck back on:  "The question is did that happen in the accident or whether they took them off to move the aircraft."

In private, U.S. officials and aviation insiders are just as divided about the drone display: some swear its authentic; others are sure it's bunk.  Officially, all Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby would say was that "we've seen the imagery.  There are folks that are looking at it."  They sure are.

6.

VIDEO: IRAN PUTS ITS CAPTURED RQ-170 DRONE ON DISPLAY

By Clay Dillow

Popular Science

December 8, 2011

http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-12/video-iran-puts-its-captured-rq-170-drone-display


You know, it’s one thing to “shoot down” the top secret spy drone of the imperialist Zionist heathen enemy.  But come on Iran -- stop bragging.  Iran today released a two-and-a-half minute video and the first images depicting the RQ-170 stealth drone that it claims it shot down on Sunday.  It’s the first visual proof that leaders of the Islamic Republic are actually holding the drone it their possession.

If you missed this latest diplomatic dust-up:  on Sunday Iran claimed its military had downed an American drone, a claim that U.S. officials somewhat backed up by saying controllers in Afghanistan had recently lost contact with a drone flying in that country and that -- maybe just maybe -- that drone accidentally wandered into Iranian airspace.

The plot thickened when the U.S confirmed that in fact the missing drone was indeed an RQ-170 (as Iran had originally claimed), a top secret drone designed to cruise undetected at up to 50,000 feet.  It’s the same drone that offered aerial recon before and during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.  And it’s something the U.S. intelligence infrastructure would likely not like shared with its adversaries.

And now, as you can see in the video below, it certainly appears that a RQ-170 is in Iranian custody.  The release of the images and video coincides with Iran’s lodging an official diplomatic protest over the American incursion into its sovereign airspace.

So we know the Iranians really have the drone and that the drone appears to be intact.  Now comes the part where we, the public, try to parse the posturing (on both sides) from the truths.  For instance, Iran claims its air defenses detected and shot down the drone as soon as it entered Iranian airspace.  Yet the drone in the video looks highly un-shot-up and mostly un-crashed.  The official in the video is apparently explaining this away by claiming Iran’s military brought the drone down with the intention of causing minimum damage.  Gravity generally doesn’t bend its rules based upon intention, but okay.

And then there’s the fact that the drone was recovered some 140 miles from the border.  Had the drone been engaged just as it crossed into Iranian airspace, one could envision it limping its way in-country for a distance . But more than 100 miles?

Of course, the U.S. seems to be trying to sell the idea that it hasn’t a clue how the drone got into Iranian airspace, so I’m not trying to throw too many stones here.  Suffice it to say that Iran is currently holding a piece of super-stealthy U.S. intelligence equipment that’s supposed to be secret, and whatever the truth is we’re probably not going to hear it in its entirety from anyone.  Enjoy the video -- after all, it’s also your first up-close look at the RQ-170.

 

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