Iranians Claim Hack Brought Down US Drone Spy Plane

Iran claims a known GPS hack brought down a US Sentinel spy plane, but US military says it was just a malfunction

An Iranian engineer has claimed that a US drone spy aircraft was captured recently by hacking into the RQ-170 Sentinel’s navigational system.

Under a promise of anonymity, the engineer, who said he had been working on the captured unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), said the drone was made to land safely in Iran by exploiting a navigational weakness long-known to the US military, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor.

US military denials

Electronics specialists at a Revolutionary Guards cyber warfare unit reconfigured the bat-winged Sentinel’s global positioning system (GPS) to spoof it into “believing” it was arriving at its home base in Afghanistan, the engineer said. “The GPS navigation is the weakest point. By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain,” he explained.

In the report, he goes on to explain that the “spoofing” technique used takes into account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data, fooling the drone into landing “on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control centre.

The US military confirmed that one of its surveillance drones had been lost near the Iranian border, claiming that the remote operators of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “lost control” of the aircraft and have been “working to determine its status”.

At the time of the drone’s capture on 4 December, Iranian officials claimed that air defences had shot down the craft as it “briefly violated” Iran’s eastern airspace but this initial report was updated later, according to the AFP (Agence France-Presse) news service. In the revised version, the officials said the drone had penetrated much further into Iranian airspace and was landed under control and not shot down.

US officials rubbished these claims, according to a report by the Fox News service. A senior US official is quoted as saying that the Iranian version of the story was “ludicrous”, adding that “neither weaponry nor technology brought down the spy drone”. The Fox article offers an alternative hypothesis, stating Iran used jamming technology bought from Russia to down the drone. It cites recent news reports from Russia confirming the purchase of a consignment of mobile 1L222 Avtobaza radar detectors.

Stephen Trimble, a military analyst for Flight Global, an aviation Website, told Fox News that while Avtobaza is the perfect tool to target and perhaps infiltrate the communications link that allows a UAV to be controlled from a remote location, it is also entirely plausible that the aircraft simply ran out of fuel or malfunctioned independently of any Iranian electronic interference.

Nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar”, the RQ-170 Sentinel drone has played a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan and is said to have played a key intelligence role in tracking down Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.