Iran captures ‘lost’ U.S. spy drone — the first remote hijacking?

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone

The Los Angeles Times reports:

A drone that Iranian officials claimed to have shot down may be an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that went missing over western Afghanistan late last week, according to U.S.-led forces in that country.

“The operators of the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status,” NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said in a statement.

Iranian media reported Sunday that the country’s armed forces had shot down a U.S. drone that they said violated Iranian airspace along the eastern border. Iran borders Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.

An Iranian military official quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency said the aircraft suffered minor damage and was in the possession of the armed forces. He identified the aircraft as an “RQ170” type drone and said Iranian forces were “fully ready to counter any aggression.”

When the existence of the RQ-170 first entered the public domain after it was photographed in Afghanistan, it quickly got dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar.”

As a highly classified stealth aircraft the question was: why would the US be flying a drone designed to evade radar when the Taliban have no radar? Speculation suggested that its areas of operation were more likely over Pakistan and perhaps spying on nuclear facilities in Iran.

In May this year the Washington Post reported that this aircraft had indeed been used to “fly dozens of secret missions deep into Pakistani airspace and monitor the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed.”

So how did the operators manage to lose such valuable piece of equipment last week? Someone fell asleep at the wheel? Very unlikely during such a critical intelligence operation. A technical malfunction? Maybe, but in such an event it would seem more likely that the aircraft would have crashed and been destroyed.

Another possibility is that “lost control” is another way of saying hijacked. In other words, U.S. remote pilots lost control as Iranians took control.

There maybe a connection with another drone story — this one about a drone that Israel lost.

Late last month, Richard Silverstein “revealed” that an Israeli drone brought down over Southern Lebanon by Hezbollah had been booby-trapped and later unwittingly taken to a weapons depot where it was remotely detonated. It was a story so implausible that it seemed like Israeli intelligence could only feed it to a scoop-hungry blogger since most journalists simply wouldn’t take it seriously.

If the story was indeed an Israeli fabrication then it was probably concocted in order to cover up a much more important story: that Hezbollah has managed to refine its tools of electronic warfare to a point that puts in jeopardy all of Israel’s drone missions over Lebanon.

If that was the case this would have serious consequences since it is widely assumed that in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, reprisal attacks on Israel from Lebanon would swiftly follow. In such a situation, Israel could not afford to have lost one of its most valuable intelligence gathering tools — the means on which it might depend to prevent missile strikes on Tel Aviv.

In other words, if Israel’s ability to defend itself from attacks from Lebanon has been significantly degraded, it might need to be a bit more cautious about threatening to attack Iran.

Israel is flying less sophisticated drones than the RQ-170, but even so, whatever skills Hezbollah has been acquiring in its counter-drone operations it has very likely been sharing with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Might this provide part of the explanation about how the U.S. lost and Iran found a drone that supposedly went “missing”?

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  1. sharon-marie says

    Oh how i just need to celebrate a good news story Thank you War in Context you never seem to fail my delight with your truth!! keep on keeping on yippie the tide is on the turn 🙂

  2. Why Hezbollah? Seems larger players with real assets would be the only ones in the RF sigintel able to do the improbable. Such drones would likely recover to satsigs if jamming were attempted? You know the tech?

  3. While Hezbollah is often referred to as an Iranian proxy — obscuring the fact that it is a Lebanese resistance movement — I would expect that when it comes to finding ways to counter the threat from Israeli drones, they would work closely with the Iranians. Do I understand the technical issues here? Not in the least. I’m engaged in off-the-cuff speculation. But I would justify this kind of speculation on this basis: that while the US press is giving a lot of attention to advances being made in the use of drones in remote warfare, little to no attention is given to the other side of the story. Which is to say: those who are being targeted by drones will be studying just as carefully how to respond to the threat. They may not have the vast resources of the US government, but counter-drone technologies are sure to appear. Indeed, one would assume that the US and others are also investing in developing the tools to disable enemy drones.

  4. This was bound to happen, sooner or later. These drones are operated by remote control, digitally. However sophisticated, every computer system can be broken into. Cyber warfare works both ways. American wizkids may be able to develop a Stuxnet worm capable to shut down Iranian centrifuges, the Iranians seem to have developed technology to “hijack” US drones. This is becoming a vicious circle. Therefore, it’s never too late for parties to the conflict to realize that the cost of offensive weapons is lost investment and that diplomacy warrants the highest priority.

  5. It reminds me how bad we need Ronald Reagan again, remember when Iran held US hostages, He bribed Iran with money and weapons to hold the hostages until Carter lost the election, what a great man. Bush SR was the bagman , maybe he could get our drone back!

  6. wow what a great shot! i am surprised that Iran country could get the US spy drone with out any damage or lost. as Muslim i am proud of Iran country, because just Iran shows to US that you are not the one who could do anything we have power also and we will be as big challenge for you and never will let you to be dominant on world, because every human burn free and every one has it’s own human rights.
    i hope more success and wishes to Iran country and i hope god help them to take out us from world map.
    long live Islam, long live Iran.

  7. I think this is a big lesson that technology is not as infallible as its made out to be. Human error will be put as the reason at some point, but the issue at hand is that if this technology gets into the wrong hands, what will be the outcome.