U.S. experts fear that Iranian hackers disabled drone's systems
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.
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.
"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.
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.