Superior Iranian Technology…Really?

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proudly displays an RQ-170 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) which went down over Iranian airspace. Their assertion is that they commandeered and brought down via their own advanced technological capabilities.

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Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Commanding General, IRGC Air Force stated: “Recently, our collected intelligence and precise electronic monitoring revealed that this aircraft intended to infiltrate our country’s airspace for spying missions. After it entered the eastern parts of the country, this aircraft fell into the trap of our armed forces and was downed in Iran with minimum damage.”

Shortly after the US acknowledgement about the lost a RQ-170 Sentinel UAS originally flown out of a US base in western Afghanistan, Iran wasted little time proclaiming victory in defeat of otherwise superior US technology.  While watching television footage of a highly advanced American ISR UAV being paraded by Iran on Al Jazeera television is unsettling for most of us, I feel pretty confident when stating these proud claims of technical superiority or vigilant surveillance leading to the apprehension of this particular UAS are false (as usual).

According to varying reports, the Iranians claimed they intercepted the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) UAS employing one of three methods. Utilizing UNCLASSIFIED and publicly available information, let’s examine these claims from the Iranian government:

Claim #1:  IRGC utilized their own advanced line of sight (LOS) or beyond line of sight (BLOS) communications technology and to commandeer the aircraft and remotely pilot and land it onto Iranian soil. 

Why this is improbable:  Every UAS in the US inventory utilizes unique and proprietary software programs for command & control of the aircraft, sensor exploitation and onboard weapons systems.  Iranian UAS operators would require extensive and instruction specific to piloting the Lockheed manufactured RQ-170 as well as a mated ground control station equipped with an identical data link capability and the (absolute) latest version of this specific UAS system software.

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Claim #2. IRGC deployed sophisticated Russian-made jamming technology disrupting the RQ-170 satellite communication causing it to crash. 

Why this is improbable:  All satellite capable UAS are equipped with various contingency measures designed to deal with issues such as a lost link or jamming.  If a UAS experiences a loss of communication with the command center or GCS, it will, independent of external communication or jamming, autonomously revert to and fly a pre-programmed lost-link profile consisting of waypoints at various altitudes until it re-establishes communication via LOS or BLOS or runs out of fuel and crashes.   Depending on the type of UAS, some of these profiles are robust enough to automatically divert and navigate the aircraft back to a home base where it can autonomously land itself.  It is more likely the RQ-170 experienced a loss of communications, was unable to reestablish communication ran out of fuel and either autonomously landed or crashed into an obstacle obstructing a flight path (aka. a mountain range).

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Claim #3. IRGC air defenses discovered and shot down the RQ-170 as soon as it entered Iranian airspace.

Why this is improbable:  Again, It is more likely the RQ-170 experienced a loss of communications, was unable to reestablish communication ran out of fuel and either autonomously landed  or crashed into an obstacle obstructing a flight path (aka. a mountain range).  I am hard pressed to believe the Iranian radar defense systems are all of sudden capable of detecting stealth technology as advance as the profile of the RQ-170 at a standard operational altitude of 50,000 ft.

The bottom line: Regardless of superior technological and engineering advancements, the probability of an eventual malfunction with any piece of complex military grade hardware will always exist.  Iran just happened to be an unwitting recipient who accidentally back into this “victory.”  This is a hard but valuable lessoned learned

To appreciate my perspective, here is a basic understanding about the pros and cons of how today’s satellite-capable UAVs operate.

The aircraft shown on Iranian television looked like the RQ-170 Sentinel made by Lockheed Martin, first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007. The same type of drone was used to provide surveillance of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan before the May raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.