Over the last two weeks, the Iranian government’s campaign to convince outsiders that it cleverly downed a secret U.S. spy drone has surpassed the production values of Ashton Kutcher’s 2000 stoner comedy, Dude, Where’s My Car? The Iranians apparently reassembled and repainted the damaged drone so they could spin a fanciful tale of jamming GPS signals to trick the drone’s computers into landing. They then went on to claim that they were close to unlocking the secrets of the drone’s technology, and would soon be turning out Iranian versions of the unmanned aircraft to deploy against their western tormentors.
Well good luck. Although a lot of people were fooled by the video of the drone broadcast on Iranian television, journalists at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have poked drone-size holes in Iran’s version of events. For starters, as Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous of the Journal reported, the Iranian stagehands painted their recovered drone the wrong color. The paint helped hide the fractures where the broken airframe had been reassembled, but the U.S. paints military aircraft operating at the altitude of the RQ-170 drone light gray to minimize their visibility, whereas the drone displayed by the Iranians was stark white.
In addition, the Iranian version of events didn’t explain how they could successfully jam the GPS signal of a stealthy drone that their radars are incapable of tracking. Although the GPS signal is relatively weak — it originates on satellites at least 12,000 miles away — the power of jammers diminishes as a square of the distance from the transmitter; that means that without a precise idea of where the drone was, the Iranians would have needed to use very powerful jammers to assure the drone was deprived of GPS information, in the process interfering with numerous electronic devices such as cell phones over a vast area. Possible, but not probable.
A more likely version of events was reported on December 16 by Reuters reporters Mark Hosenball and Andrea Shalal-Esa. They cited U.S. government sources as blaming a combination of technical malfunction and operator error for loss of the drone. The sources told Reuters that the drone was allowed to drift downward to an altitude where self-destruction through catastrophic impact was no longer feasible, so it simply broke up into a few pieces that Iran could reassemble. Apparently the airframe developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works was too aerodynamically efficient to produce the kind of total disintegration that would have been desirable under the circumstances, given the low altitude from which it plummeted. But Reuters reports that the software and circuit boards in the drone were so thoroughly encrypted that unlocking their secrets will be nearly impossible.
We’ll probably never know all the details of how the drone was lost, because the U.S. government isn’t interested in advertising the vulnerabilities of its intelligence systems. However, two important points about what it all means seem reasonably clear. First, Iran doesn’t have an effective counter against stealthy reconnaissance drones, because it lacks the capacity to detect and track them with existing defenses. Second, if the stealth technology of the RQ-170 drone were somehow compromised, the U.S. would still have numerous ways of keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program, from spy satellites to eavesdropping submarines to human agents in-country. After all, we got the Stuxnet virus inserted into their network, didn’t we? When a country generates nearly half of all global military expenditures, like America does, it always has backup options for accomplishing important missions.
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