Iran Didn't Hack US Drone, Experts Say
An artist's rendering of the no-longer-secret RQ-170 unmanned surveillance drone.
CREDIT: Truthdowser/Creative Commons
Despite reports that Iran hijacked a United States stealth military drone early this month and forced it to land in hostile territory, not everyone is buying the hype.
"Some kind of mechanical malfunction" is probably what caused the unmanned drone, a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel (nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by Afghans who'd seen it), to go down 140 miles inside Iran on Dec. 4, according to John Pike, director of the Alexandria, Va.-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
George Smith, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity, echoed his colleague's assertion.
"Stuff goes wrong," Smith told SecurityNewsDaily. "It's certainly an embarrassment to the United States, as advertised. The bragging on the part of the Iranian government is unsurprising."
Pike agreed, telling SecurityNewsDaily, "The Iranians are great braggarts."
Pike believes Iran lacks the technological capability to exploit a vulnerability in the drone's GPS system. That's how Iran claimed to have taken control of the drone, according to an Iranian engineer speaking on condition of anonymity to the Christian Science Monitor.
In a post on Twitter Friday afternoon, James A. Lewis, director and senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote, "Drone video suggests no shootdown (no battle damage) and no control (or why not lower landing gear?). Malfunction still most likely."
Iran claims it 'spoofed' drone's GPS
The anonymous engineer told the Christian Science Monitor that Iran jammed the drone's encrypted GPS system, reconfigured it and "spoofed" it so that the drone's navigation system would think it was landing at its home base in Afghanistan.
Such an undertaking would take an extreme level of technical prowess, but would not be not impossible, the engineer said. An internal Air Force report leaked in April indicated that vulnerabilities in encrypted military GPS systems open them to the kind of "spoofing" attack Iran is claiming it launched.
Both Pike and Smith agree that the U.S. would "probably" not let a critical flaw in the drone's GPS system go unfixed. And that's in addition, Pike said, to the difficulty Iran officials would have had in even spotting the drone in the first place.
High-flying hack is 'implausible'
To bring down the drone, which flies around 40,000 feet, Iran officials would, naturally, have to see it. This isn't an easy task, experts say, and it's only the first part of the process.
In another Christian Science Monitor article, Dennis Gormley, a University of Pittsburgh expert on unmanned air systems, said he finds it "implausible" that Iran could detect the drone, "given the existing quality of their air-defense system, which is not sufficiently sophisticated to detect it. Their air defenses are a type that doesn't have the ability to detect a low-cross-section vehicle like the RQ-170."
Citing the stealth helicopter that went undetected in the raid against Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, John Bumgarner, chief technology officer for the private U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, told the Christian Science Monitor that Iran detecting the Beast drone would be "almost like science fiction."
Nothing to control it with
Bumgarner said in the event Iran did detect the drone, the Iranian hackers would still face the challenge of overriding the drone's encrypted GPS system and manipulating it to land in Iran.
"They would have to have some kind of software to take control of the craft, to produce signals compatible with the internal software on the drone," Bumgarner said.
He's skeptical that even if they spotted it, they could sucessfully take it down.
"I don't think the Iranians have the capability to identify a stealth aircraft on radar, especially a U.S. stealth aircraft," he said, "or jam an encrypted frequency used on this bird, or have the software to control the bird."