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Posted on Dec 12, 2011 in War College

Ralph Peters: Twilight of the Drones – Recent Loss of RQ 170 In Iran a Possible Game-changer

By Ralph Peters

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel (Official USAF Photo)

At the end of November, an American RQ 170 stealth super-drone landed in Iran and was promptly seized by the Revolutionary Guards. Beyond the special coating and the avionics, the real prize on-board was the state-of-the-art sensor package ― the finest collection devices decades of experience, billions of dollars and our defense industry’s best scientists could field. Now the Iranians have it all. They certainly will share it with the Chinese. They may share it with the Russians.

How worried should we be? On a five-alarm scale, this is a six. The surest indication that things went horribly wrong came from our own intelligence bureaucracy: Never in living memory has our government rushed so swiftly to deny that the loss of a system or aircraft was anything but a technical glitch. A thorough investigation would follow, officials promised.

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Wait a minute: Isn’t the investigation supposed to come before the categorical public announcement that this was definitely a malfunction and nothing else? The loss of the drone may, indeed, have been due to a mechanical or communications anomaly. But all this smells to high heaven (or Iranian earth) of something much more troubling.

For their part, smirking Iranians announced that the drone had been brought down by an “electronic ambush.” I believe they let the cat out of the bag through excited vanity. It was jarring to hear our officials rush out ― again ― to deny that the Iranians had done anything to bring down the RQ 170. We were assured that Tehran has no such capability.

That much may be true. But the Chinese have been working intensely for years to find ways to disrupt our strategic command, control and communications capabilities. While we blithely ignore our own vulnerabilities, the Chinese (and the dark-horse-in-this-race Russians) long ago recognized that the decisive link in dealing with the U.S. armed forces is satellite communications. So they’ve investigated every option from anti-satellite weapons, through straightforward jamming, to spoofing our signals and wresting control of our systems. They’ve hacked every defense and industry data base they could to nail down our designs and codes. They’ve just been doing the obvious: Faced with an American force that relies on everything from GPS at the tactical level to highly encrypted strategic command-and-control systems, it’s a far more promising strategy to attack those links than to try to fight our combat and intelligence systems one by one on the battlefield. Break the comms, break us.

If the ghost of Jimmy the Greek appeared on the other side of my desk, I’d take whatever odds he offered and bet that our RQ 170 was hijacked, that Chinese operatives, working with the Iranians, had monitored our flight patterns and patiently waited for the perfect opportunity: a situation with plausible denial and no footprint. I believe the Chinese (probably from a site within China) jammed the satellite link between the remote operator in the USA and the drone flirting with (or knowingly penetrating) Iranian airspace. Then the Chinese took over the RQ 170 with commands that perfectly mimicked our encoded system, bringing it down to earth in one piece as a prize.

According to our officials, the drone was supposed to self-destruct or return to base when the comms link broke down. I suspect that the drone never realized that communications had been interrupted. The Chinese smoothly assumed control and ordered the aircraft to land. If the drone the Iranians put on display was the real thing and not a mock-up, the preceding strikes me as the only sensible scenario to explain what happened.

Yes, this may be my fantasy. Perhaps I’m completely wrong. And I don’t like conspiracy theories one bit. But this incident strikes me as the biggest American aerial surveillance disaster since Francis Gary Powers went down over the Soviet Union in his U-2 spy plane in 1960. The U-2 was supposed to be invulnerable, too.

Now, a half-century later, the stakes are even higher. The immediate concern is the cutting-edge UAV technology and sensor designs we’ve lost. But it’s the longer-term strategic implications that must have not only our intelligence community, but also the armed services and defense contractors near panic: Drones have become our “wonder weapon,” the painless, pilotless solution to everything from keeping tabs on a courtyard in Afghanistan to X-raying underground tunnels belonging to Iran’s nuclear program. Our UAVs kill terrorists and guard convoys. And the missions keep expanding.

Suddenly, the entire concept’s in jeopardy. While al Qaeda may not be seizing control of our UAVs in the near future, the possibility that the big players, such as China and Russia, can readily neutralize key collection systems and weapons in wartime must be terrifying to war planners and decision-makers. And the defense industry has a big chunk of its future at stake in the growth of UAV programs.

The only solution, if drones can be decoyed by enemy signals, is to pre-program the UAV to follow certain attack profiles, ignoring all post-launch commands. Then you’re into the Dr. Strangelove “Doomsday Device” scenario: How do you call off the drone in an emergency?

It gets worse. If an opponent can break C3 links with drones, causing them to crash or to “desert to the enemy,” the same antagonist can interrupt other strategic communications ― as well as tactical comms and data transfers essential to everything from fire-control systems to medevacs. Satellites have become as vital to our 21st-century military as the internal-combustion engine was in World War II.

For years, I’ve written about this obvious vulnerability within our hi-tech forces. I even wrote a novel, The War After Armageddon, illustrating what warfare might be like when our fancy toys no longer work reliably. For our real and potential enemies, this is a no-brainer: Why go head to head with America’s fighters, bombers, ships or artillery and lose, when you can electronically confuse them into uselessness ― or even assume control of them?

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that RQ 170 really did land because of a software anomaly. I hope the Chinese (to say nothing of the Iranians themselves) are still many years away from such a game-changing capability. I hope that the unwillingness of our officials to consider a Chinese (or Russian) “electronic ambush” is fully justified by hard facts they know but we don’t. And I hope the Iranians were just blustering, as usual, and not blurting out what really went down when they promptly crowed about an “electronic ambush.”

But I wouldn’t want to bet the lives of our troops on it.

Would you?

Ralph Peters is a long-time member of the Armchair General team, a former Army enlisted man and retired intelligence officer, and the author, most recently, of LINES OF FIRE, a compilation of his best, time-tested writing on military affairs, security and strategy.

22 Comments

  1. I was surprised that a self-destruct system based upon altitude criteria and activation by the operator 30 secs.before takeoff is not installed in these drones.
    The unthinkable always happens(e.g.capture of ENIGMA during WW2 by a sheer flukeof mis-judgement by U-Boat’s skipper.)
    Are you saying that this eventuality was not thought about and a real fail-safe self destruct mode was NOT pre programmed?
    This is a disaster of the first water.What happens next??

    • Please look at
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptanalysis_of_the_Enigma#Polish_breakthrough

      It is not that Uboot captain did something wrong and German lost Enigma secret. It was just one of many others small victories all caused but Polish mathematics and inteligence.

      —————-
      RQ 170
      I think it is not so easy for Iranian/Chineese to resolve how stuff works and how it was manufactured, so I hope USAF still will be no.1 for long decades.

  2. “The unthinkable always happens(e.g.capture of ENIGMA during WW2 by a sheer flukeof mis-judgement by U-Boat’s skipper”

    You are wrong, Enigma was cracked by polish intelligence service before WW2.

  3. “But I wouldn’t want to bet the lives of our troops on it.”

    So let them come home. It is the best way to save their lives and thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Iran (and perhaps the rest of the world, because your actions lead to inevitable WW III).

    Just for the record. Polish guerrillas fighting with german and russian invasion during WW II were also called terrorists…

  4. I blame global warming.

    Or not. In seriousness, who knows what brought it down? (No, it was NOT global warming.) I don’t see the great calamity in this incident, though.

    High tech stuff sometimes doesn’t work. This shouldn’t be news.

    The lensatic compass and protractor still need to be part of training. Voice and data transmission may be interrupted and compromised. The enemy may have countermeasures against weapons and technologies you didn’t think could be countered yet.

    So? What’s new about that?

    Same ol’ same ol’.

  5. why oh why you insist to elaborate on the consequences of losing your priceless drone-technology, instead taking a time to think why it was there in the first place.
    Germany was bancrupt before WWII and its bancrupcy was the cause of the war. For the same reason USA / IZRAEL want to take over the middle east countries – the US with air-filled dollars that FED is printing at will is bancrupt – face it and GTFO from Asia.
    Chinesse are way ahead of you and you dont even realize…

    • Your argument has little basis in fact, but rather a personal opinion that has little weight in truth. Therefore your comment is irrelevant.

      First, your explanation of cause of World War II is very shortsighted in that the cause is much more complicated. It is true that Germany was pretty much bankrupt but also because of the Versailles Treaty that imposed unfair conditions onto Germany.

      Like Germany, the countries that fought in the Great War were heavily in debt. In order to pay off this debt they tried to export their way of out debt by making their currency worth less than the countries that they were trading with. Through the notion of beggar thy neighbor; by trying to make their goods cheaper: in the case of Germany on of the ways they did so was to print more money.

      When the Great Depression came about, the situation became worse as everyone tried continue to try out export the other countries by making their currency even cheaper, while limiting foreign imports. This created a death spiral and worsened the depression. (In this regard, protectionist trade policies is one of the factors that causing the current Great Recession to continue.)

      When the Nazi Party took power, Hitler sought to subjugate foreign markets in order have access to natural resources and reconquer Traditional Germany territory. Israel’s foreign policy is a reflection of regional security concerns that is surrounded by hostile countries, and the Arab Spring that continue to topple states and create even more uncertainty.

      American’s actions in the Middle East is a reflection of power politics and its continued role in global security (global security in the sense of establishing political stability, economic stability, natural resources, humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and peace-keeping operations). In this regard, America, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, France and England should still engage with Asian countries in order to address global issues. (One of these concerns is the arms race in East Orient; it was announced today that Lockheed Martin is selling stealth fighters to Japan in response to North Korea’s recent actions and China’s military expanding military budget and development of its own stealth fighters and aircraft carrier.)

      In the case of Iraq, America was a unilaterist that compelled its allies and smaller willing countries to invade. Due to short-sighted post-war planning, lack of accurate intelligence, lack of occupation troops, and a gross inability to articulate why the US is there after ousting Saddam resulted in a bloody insurgency, sectarian violence and an erosion of America’s international image.

      What you are arguing is that America should disengage from and take up an isolationist approach to global issues, for fear of creating negative externalities despite benign intent. Much in the way of China that continues to be export driven, whose government is complicit to the erosion of intellectual property rights, that is complicit to the black market that continues to create forgeries and sub-par goods, its stubborn refusal to engage in global security (save policing the Horn of Africa), and the systematic agenda of cultural genecide.

      China is by a large an isolationist state that engages in trade and national economic development in order create more wealth and power for the sake of its own national security in all forms (economic, political, territory, cultural, ethnicity, financial security and knowledge). Isolationism is merely a reflection of the state’s own goals and agenda that is ultimately irrelevant on the world stage.

      As long China is heavily reliant on the illicit economy that employs a significant portion of its population (if they seriously crack down on it, it would create unemployment and civil unrest); so long as China’s government continues to stifle innovation by not strictly enforcing intellectual property rights; so long as China’s leadership do not seriously consider political reform; so long as China does not instill creativity and educate engineers on par with America’s: China will never truly be great.

      • #Quote: “China is by a large an isolationist state that engages in trade and national economic development in order create more wealth and power for the sake of its own national security in all forms”

        And if China went beyond that, wouldn’t it be called “irredentist” or “belligerent” ? Wouldn’t such direction by China be painted in terms of “global ambitions” of the darkest tone ? As it is, China being “isolationist”, as you put it, already attracts such demonising.

        #Quote: “As long China is heavily reliant on the illicit economy that employs a significant portion of its population (if they seriously crack down on it, it would create unemployment and civil unrest)”

        You said it. It’s like those who self-righteously chest-thump about child labour ….only to be clueless when asked what the REAL options are for those children. Often, doing work and earning to help out their familites is about the only real option. In the case of China, what other economic path to develop would have worked to pull millions out of poverty in the same time frame ? And if China were democratic, it wouldn’t have been facing the same economic choices and problems ?

        #Quote: “… so long as China’s government continues to stifle innovation by not strictly enforcing intellectual property rights”

        That’s ideological talk. On the other hand, the Western (particularly US) media espouses the idea of the innovator as a maverick who doesn’t care for the rules. So make up your mind. Fact is, innovators aren’t turned off by absence of solid legal protection for their innovation. Never have been. That’s just not the way it works, whatever the merits are of IP protection laws.

        #Quote:” so long as China’s leadership do not seriously consider political reform”

        Suppose you let the Chinese people decide for themselves the pace and direction of such reforms. It may be glacial to you but it works for them. If you observe objectively, you’ll see Chinese society evolving its own accountability mechanism. The provincial papers are fairly outspoken and their online community is about as irreverent as anybody else’s.

        #Quote: ” so long as China does not instill creativity and educate engineers on par with America’s”

        These people picked up real fast overnight from an early 50s tech level. They’re keen to learn and they’ve got drive. Give them time. The idea that creativity is instilled by “freedoms” is, again, your ideology talking. Who was in a hurry to bring home Nazi scientists at the end of WW2?

        #Quote:”China will never truly be great”

        China doesn’t aim to be great, even if official bombast self-refers as such. It’s a long-existing civilisation that just “is”. Its historical philosophy never asserted the need to foist a sense of its own exceptionalism upon the rest of the world. .

  6. “You are wrong, Enigma was cracked by polish intelligence service before WW2.”

    It was cracked before it existed? Well if its on wikipedia it must be true…

    • in december 1932 Marian Rejewski cracked Enigma soo yea it was before WWII but in 1938 they changed cryption code thats why they was still used Enigma in WWII, and Germans again changed cryption code in 1939….I know America is so cool and free country but You dont own everythink in this planet…..

      • Nazi Germany used Enigma throughout the war not because they changed the codes periodically. They didn’t even put into the consideration that this device can be cracked. Its all about extreme caution of the allies to not exploit cracked messages excessively to avoid alerting Abwehr that something wasn’t right. Of course it led to bigger loss in life for the Allies but stake was much higher. Cracked Enigma was the most guarded secret of WWII. As for polish team of mathematics, they didn’t crack the codes. They have researched how it works and build working replica. All this research was packed into wooden crates and shipped to UK. This research allowed to crack the codes. One piece was even catched by polish intelligence in 39′ (it was sent by mail to Gdansk[sic!] as a “typewriter”, but it wasn’t captured to avoid any suspicion.
        Nazis never realised that Allies could decrypt they communication, this should be a lesson for the future. In 2010 polish president died in the crash in Russia. Russian layed hands on sat phone with Nato hardware codes of highest tier(ofc they stated that it was destroyed in the crash). Most likely they can decrypt NATO communications 5 years back. Sad but true.

  7. Sorry for my English … I think USA is in its infancy and long maturation will power, just look at the beginning of all great empires, and you can see similar behavior. So the loss drone is nothing but a waste of technology on which probably already worked many years ago and that now and so you have better toys. Secondly, no one you can not compromise for the next 100 years. USA army is powerful, ruthlessly you advise on water, land and air, and your dominance in the modern world can not be denied. Look in the past, situation with U-2.

  8. I think this is more of a wake-up call than a disaster. We’ve been building drones like crazy and seeing them as a magic bullet solution to every problem–one with no risk. It’s a fantasty, built on the myth of their invulnerability and our ability to secure their data links (our data security is a joke). I’d rather lose one to Iran now than discover their weaknessess when their are boots on the ground depending on them.

  9. If Chinese were indeed able to spoof the signal, the whole USA and NATO strategy of overreliance on GPS in combat, from the tactical level of a platoon all the way up to war theater operations has been jeopardized and requires rethinking.

    Soviets during the WWII demonstrated that it is the determination of “boots on the ground” that ultimately wins wars.

  10. I hope this is a wake up call. We are still too arogant both in our foreign policy and our military position and we continue to weaken ourselves both militarily and domestically. It reminds me of Grenada when we finally went into combat for the first time since Viet Nam and found out all our wonder-boy and bean counter systems didn’t work as well as the WW2 systems. If we don’t alter our view and our systems that someone is always working on counter measures we will end up in a conflict with some of the finest military “pants” around our ankles.
    We always seem to under estimate our enemy. A simple mechanically timed self destruct hidden in a drone that requires physical deactivation after mission could have solved this problem. I hope someone in the Pentagon and DC is listening to Colonel Peters, former enlisted make the best officers….

  11. Forget this Enigma stuff! Stay on the Colonel’s topic.
    The Chinese may have had no part in this. Drones have been lost in Afghanistan, and some may have been recovered intact enough that their parts could have been sold by foe or “friend” to Iran. War is the business of Afghanistan, and money fuels it, so a crashed drone is just war booty. Iran has enough smart engineers and scientist who could figure out from these parts how to override the American controls. Iran has no more love for the Russians and Chinese than they do for the USA.

    • i think your onto the reality on the drone. my memory of iran showing off their prize and their hiding the under carriage was a clue to me that it was a mock up. it did not resemble the photo at start of the article.

  12. The source of any vulnerability may be simple.

    A nation that seeks reducing costs by allowing the off shore procurement of critical electronic components creates the vulnerability.

    Continue the war on local labor costs by buying overseas and create the opportunity for friend and foe to infiltrate critical defense industries.

  13. Im honestly suprised it took this long for someone to steal one. It was just a matter of time and frankly having a vulnerability 10 years old is just asking for trouble

  14. Your hypohesis is dead on. Read articles out there that show the USAF had the RQ 170 as having landed. 3 hours after it was over due the recovery team in Afghanistan called the USA ask where it was.

    The oops moment was immediate. The Chinese must have waited for operating conditions that were similar. I would be willing to bet that air field it landed on was very similar in design and altitude to where it normally lands in Afghanstan.

    Why else would they hide the landing gear. What is more embarrassing is we didnt go in and destroy it via air strike. It was an act of war to take it.

    Espionage has been around for thousands of years. I see nothing wrong in risking the lives of a spy to save millions on the battle field. I don’t see anythng wrong with a drone saving the life of the spy with a drone.

    The use of proxy countries to mask the intent of a puppeteering master country has also been around for thousands of years.

    The morality of whether or not it should be done is a separate argumet.

    I disagree with it being a 6 on the scale of 5 There is better innovation in American commercial industry than in the cumbersome and slow to move Defense industry that focuses on $$$ only with little regard to entrepenurial risk.

    • i have been reading presenters to talk about hiding landing gear of captured drone. to me this “hiding” wasa big clue to something. what were they hiding by hiding landing gear? yes, i understand using skirts for propaganda purposes but the hiding was a clue to much and im not sure what but what they hide must be more important than propaganda.
      i believe this wasa mock-up. intuition asa sniper tells me so.

  15. ralph peters intro to drones carried a statement that “the u-2 was invulnerable. the u-2 flew so high that the russians had no rockets that could reach it at those altitudes. when the russians finally produced a rocket that could reach the u-2 altitude, then the u-2 was basically out- moded.

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