I am working hard at fusing all the information I can, from many sources, on the RQ-170 loss ordeal so that my readers don’t have to fumble around trying to put all the relevant pieces together. There is a LOT of junk out there, written by people who have no understanding of these topics, but there is also some good tidbits that when taken in context are actually of larger importance than their authors realize. The general trending developments are outlined below in italics, my commentary follows in regular font. Enjoy!
- There is rampant speculation all over the net that the Russian “Avtobaza” jamming and electronic intelligence system was utilized to jam or spoof the RQ-170’s data links. It is widely known that Iran had taken delivery of this advanced mobile jamming and electronic intelligence system within the last couple of months. These systems are primarily supposed to be used to jam and detect sideways looking surveillance radars, fire control and terrain following radars found onboard fighter aircraft, and a cruise missile’s navigation and terminal guidance systems. What many do not understand is that a key function of the “Avtobaza” system is not just jamming, but detecting and locating the origin of a radio frequency emitter such as a radar or a data link etc. There is no reason why, depending on what payload the RQ-170 was carrying and especially if that payload had anything to do with radar surveillance, that the system could not have detected the Sentinel’s electronic trail and either jammed it and/or have alerted fighter aircraft and SAM installations as to its whereabouts. Further, these systems are supposed to be used in direct conjunction with Iran’s nuclear development sites.
- RQ-170 is said to utilize semi-autonomous navigation and control, similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk. This would result in no, or only limited duration transmissions from the drone over hostile territory as long as intelligence data was not being streamed in real-time to satellites or an orbiting battlefield connectivity node. Semi-autonomous operation drastically reduces the possibility of enemy detection and the aircraft would be basically “emissions silent” throughout much of its mission. The aircraft’s rudimentary artificial intelligence may also be able to react to threatening radar emitters by changing it’s course or even aborting a mission if an enemy’s radar pops up within detection range. Being semi-autonomous does not mean totally autonomous. Although simple commands can be sent and received very quickly using low probability of intercept data links, this does not mean the system is 100% silent, nor does it mean all systems were working on the drone normally. If an emergency or even a general command prompt did occur that would require the Sentinel to “ask” its controllers for a command, it could have been detected by the “Avtobaza” electronic intelligence and jamming system. At this point the drone’s communications could have been jammed and it’s location pinpointed via the “Avtobaza’s” advanced direction finding equipment. Fighters and SAM batteries could have then been directed to it’s general location and from that point on the drone could have been doomed. An even more likely scenario would be one where the drone was actively transmitting live video, detailed radar maps, or electronic intelligence, in real-time. In this mode it could have been detected more easily, jammed and located by picking up its continuous emissions. Further, jamming the Sentinel’s data links may not have caused it’s demise alone, but jamming it’s radar altimeter (if it had one) and it’s GPS receivers could have caused it to be blinded, especially if it’s onboard embedded inertial navigation system (INS) malfunctioned or could not handle a totally confused GPS system.
- Tehran Times is reporting that the Iranian Government may put the RQ-170 on display and that China and Russia have asked to see whatever is left of the drone. Take all this with a grain of salt as I am not to confident about the sources or reporting standards of the Tehran Times, BUT everything they said was predicted here and totally within the realm of logic.
- All sources are reporting that there was a serious plan underway to send in a commando force to demolish the drone or extract what was left of it. There was also an option presented to destroy the drone via aerial bombardment, although what platform would have conducted such a raid has not been described. Possibilities include a B-2 bomber, JASSM missile, or Tomahawk cruise missile, although there are surely a handful of clandestine platforms that could have done the job as well. Possibly even a lightly armed version of the RQ-170. As to the commando raid, it would make total sense that a stealth helicopter, such as the ones used in the Bin Laden raid, would have been utilized for such a dangerous mission.
- Multiple sources report that the aircraft crashed well inside of Iranian airspace. Some pinpoint it at 140 miles toward the interior, near the town of Kashmar. It could have strayed that far once contact was lost, but there is a better chance that it was on a mission deep within Iranian airspace. Further, these drones just don’t fly straight and level when all comm links are lost, they either are programmed to turn back or to circle.
- Sources say the RQ-170 was not fitted with a self destruct mechanism. This is possibly due to the fact the aircraft was built for expendability in mind and not highly sensitive in nature, although this practice may now change.
- The US has lost multiple drones over Iran in the past half decade or so, and there is no information to preclude that a RQ-170, or any of its direct ancestors, had not been lost before. In other words, the technology could have already been compromised to some degree years ago. This may also have helped Iran understand how the RQ-170 works so that they could more easily detect it and disable it.
A final note. If we have compromised a stealth helicopter’s basic design strategy and an RQ-170 drone, both no doubt built with some tradeoff between preserving national security secrets and mission effectiveness, why don’t we just use them all we want now? If Iran does indeed have an RQ-170, why not park them on orbit all over their country now? Once the cat is out of the bag, you might as well play with the cat right? Just a thought to consider.
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