I’m still feeling like I’m a good day or two behind the rest of the world when it comes to what’s going on out there, so forgive me if this seems dated already. But I couldn’t not comment on the downed drone in Iranian territory. Like most people, when I first saw the news, I figured it was a complete fabrication by the Iranian press. When confirmation came out from the US government that we did, in fact, lose a spy plane in or near Iranian airspace, I was more than a little surprised.
Like most things in life, the idea that we could lose a nearly intact drone to Iran is one of those things that seems too ridiculous to be true until it actually happens. As of the time of this writing, the buzz seems to have died down some surrounding the issue, so it may be that the whole thing is for naught. In any case, it appears to me that if all the reports that we’ve seen so far are true, which is also a big if, then the situation is bad, but not dire, with many more “it could be worse” points than actual “oh god why”.
The good news: The initial reports coming out of Iran involved claims that the Iranian military used a sophisticated cyberattack to down the drone. Fact: There is no way that a cyberattack is what actually led to the downing of the craft. Despite a report earlier this year about a virus that has spread through the drone fleet, Iran’s electronic warfare capability is in no way capable of hacking into the controls of a drone and forcing it to land. James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it succinctly:
“Iran hacking into the drone is as likely as an Ayatollah standing on a mountain-top and using thought waves to bring it down,” Lewis, a former Reagan administration official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News by email Monday. “The most likely explanation is that it crashed on its own.”
“If you could hack into a drone, you wouldn’t use it for some spontaneous fun, you’d save it for a rainy day,” Lewis continued. “You’d need to be able to hack either the control network in the U.S. or a satellite. Neither is easy, and both are probably not something the Iranians can do.”
Better news: We didn’t risk going in after it. Initially, Iran most likely didn’t know about the crash and probably didn’t for sometime, as evidenced by the fact that their acquisition was revealed almost a week after it was lost in the first place. But the Wall Street Journal reports that though we considered recovery, the US ultimately opted against, as the risks of adding fuel to the fire far outweighed a recovery of the technology:
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.
The fact remains as well that this is what drones were designed to be useful for. Had it been a manned surveillance aircraft, in the style of the spy plane that went down over China in 2001, we would have had a much larger problem on our hands, with either a dead airman or a captive of the IRGC to deal with. Despite acknowledging that we did not attempt to go in after the drone, there will be those who say the contrary. For example, at the Aviationist blog, a reader has posted this following theory:
“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.”
Oh my wow, does that make no sense. Suppose. Suppose for a half-second that we actually were prepared to send in a team, possibly deep into Iranian territory, to attempt to recover or destroy this drone. Why would such a team be put together and insert without knowing where the damn thing is? It may have just been commentary on what is SOP in other instances, but that wasn’t made clear by the reader’s comment. In any case, we stayed out of Iran, which is good, which means that any saber-rattling they bring up over violation of their airspace can be promptly ignored, as usual.
The best news: The RQ-170 Sentinel is aptly named. Unlike its Predator or Reaper brethren, it is designed to do one thing only: spy. The Predator and Reaper are further not stealthy in the least-bit, being propeller-powered; if the Sentinel really was a remote stealth bomber, this would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. There are no JDAMs loaded onto the Sentinel, nor would it be readily apparent from a review of the downed craft how to integrate a weapons system seamlessly into the frame given.
The bad news: Well, there’s a few bits of bad news here. The first is that this still amounts to a large loss by the US in terms of keeping secret technology out of the hands of adversaries. And while it is weaponless, the Sentinel does possess advanced communication-monitoring tech inside of its well-coated shell. The Pentagon is working hard to spin the fact that the RQ-170 is somewhat outdated as far as drone technology goes, but it still far outstrips anything that Iran could hope to develop on its own in the near future.
While there isn’t too much new to discover from the RQ-170, the fact remains that it is still a nearly intact specimen ripe for dissection, as far as has been revealed, despite a notable lack of photographic evidence from Tehran. (Really, you’d think there’d be a shot of Ahmadinejad posing next to the thing by now.) It’s unlikely that Iran itself will be able to reverse-engineer it itself, so panicky worries about stealth surveillance drones flying from Tehran to Tel Aviv are extremely premature. What is more likely is that Iran will take this opportunity to sell the drone to the highest bidder, likely in exchange for other non-monetary perks.
Which is to say there is no way that a new round of sanctions are forthcoming in the UN Security Council. The odds were already low, this development takes them to near absolute zero in terms of possibility. Russia and China are the states most likely to benefit from this, though it would be naive to assume that they weren’t aware of many of the broader information about the craft. But actually getting their hands on an intact version would be a huge gift, particularly to states that are known for their reverse-engineering capabilities. The PRC and Russian Federation were unlikely to support new sanctions on Iran in any case, but this is a bow on that little present.
In summation, while not great, it could be a lot worse. The whole affair amounts to a brand new top-secret iPhone 5 falling off the back of a truck on Dec 24th: it isn’t set to bring down the entity that lost it, but it’s more than a little annoying. So Merry Christmas, Ayatollah. It looks like it came a little early for you this year.