It seems to be a widely settled fact that an RQ-170 Sentinel was lost in Iranian airspace. Iran is claiming now that they hacked into the RQ-170’s navigational system and basically hijacked it from it’s American operators. This has about 1/4 of 1% possibility of being anything nearing remotely true. The RQ-170 would use proprietary software that would be highly encrypted, the chances of “hacking” the system while it was in use are akin to a plot of a bad 1980’s sci-fi movie, which appears to be the place where many in the Iranian defense apparatus get their ideas. Although hacking may be very unlikely, there is the possibility that the aircraft’s data link connections to satellites or a beyond line of sight network node were jammed, although this is also unlikely. The best possible explanation is that some sort of catastrophic systems failure kept the RQ-170 from returning to safer airspace automatically or from self-destructing via explosive charge when all connection with it’s handlers was lost.
The consensus amongst major media outlets, who are usually wrong when it comes to the details of stories such as this but do have reliable sources inside Pentagon, say that Sentinel was on a CIA focused mission along the Afghani-Iranian border, in friendly territory, when all connection with the aircraft was lost. There is some advantage to flying a stealth surveillance drone along a border region, even if it is within friendly airspace. First off, if a clandestine operation is underway that would require overflight surveillance you don’t want to put up a very conspicuous radar target doing patterns right above the operations area, and such would be the case if a standard Predator or Reaper drone were used. Remember, radar does not stop at a country’s border and the Iranians are surely interested in American operations along their eastern territories. By utilizing a low observable asset, like the RQ-170, the benefits of aerial surveillance could be attained without the telltale radar signature of a conventional aircraft or drone, thus maximizing the integrity of the mission.
The fact that the RQ-170 may not have been deep inside Iranian airspace may also have to do with the type of sensor payload it was carrying onboard. As of yet, we only know about the Sentinel utilizing some form of electro-optical surveillance system, one that provides streaming video in real-time and possibly a secondary electronic intelligence capability to monitor threat radars and other radio frequency emissions within its area of operations. That is not to say that the aircraft does not exist in other configurations that support synthetic aperture or ground moving targeting indication radar surveillance or other intelligence collecting techniques. By utilizing radar at a standoff distance the RQ-170 would have been able to monitor activities fairly deep inside Iran via its altitude and slant range from the target area. This would allow commanders on the ground to utilize real-time intelligence pertaining to the patterns of life on the ground within a certain area of interest as well as exploiting up to date high fidelity radar “pictures” of an area of interest. All of these possibilities are based on the assumption that the aircraft was indeed in Afghani airspace. This author would venture to guess that the Sentinel was not. Quite the opposite, it would make most sense that it was deep inside Iranian airspace when it went down, but at least the scenarios described above would lend some credence to the possibility that it was not.
Another interesting note that has been brought to light by multiple sources is that Washington located the aircraft via satellite after it had crashed, and that every option to recover or destroy the striken drone, before the Iranians had arrived on site to retrieve it, were reviewed. This could mean a couple of things. First, the wreckage could have consisted of a smoking hole in the ground, where nothing was salvageable or useful for reverse engineering purposes. This is a possibility but there has been no inclination that this was the case at this point. The Iranians say it was found largely intact, but you cannot believe anything they say when it comes to matters such as these, although unconfirmed Pentagon sources also say it was mainly intact and that the DoD is concerned over this very fact. As to why didn’t America destroy the wreckage via a bomb or cruise missile, that answer is simple. Unless the drone was sitting in the middle of nowhere the choice to fire a weapon into another country represents a blatant act of war. Not only do you risk the political ramifications of such a choice but you also risk the possibility that another aircraft would be lost or a state of the art cruise missile go astray. Further, if the aircraft came to rest in an area that people inhabit you risk killing civilians in an attempt to destroy a drone that was violating a country’s sovereignty in the first place. This would lead to a massive surge in hatred toward America by average Iranians, some of which may have supported or had been on the fence regarding the US in the first place.
If you are feeling an overwhelming sense of Deja Vu regarding this situation you are not alone. We went through a very similar, although much more high-profile, “stealthhawk down” scenario during the SEAL’s raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan last May. Aviationintel was first out of the gate with this story and we reported it in great detail over the last six months. More on this story can be found by clicking the “Stealth Blackhawk & Bin Laden” button under catagories to your right of this article. Now the same drone that provided real-time video to the President in the Situation Room of that historic raid is the unfortunate subject of yet another American flop of a stealthy nature.
The main difference between the two ordeals comes down to photo evidence. Iran has yet to produce pictures or video of what could be the ultimate trophy piece for the anti-American propaganda spewing Iranian Government. You would think that immediately after such a machine was taken into custody photos showcasing America’s technological blunder and a broken symbol of disrespect for a sovereign country’s borders would have been blasted throughout cyberspace. Instead we have nothing of the sort, just some claims that seem to be somewhat corroborated by our own Defense Department. The only reason I can think of for this lack of visual evidence is that an intact, or partially intact American stealth drone is SO VALUABLE to other nations that the Iranians do not want to lower their reserve auction price to the Russians or Chinese by letting everyone get a taste of trophy via photos. If this, or even a portion of this is true, its bad news for the DoD. Although the airframe may have been built with expendability in mind, the subsystems may hold great value, considering the aircraft was said to not have been risked in Iranian airspace. This fact could be a good indicator of the sensitive technology onboard as many aircraft are being built with a modular, “plug and play” architecture in mind. Metaphorically speaking, when you travel abroad in areas where pickpockets and muggers are prevalent, do you put all your money in your wallet? No, you take only what you absolutely need because you don’t want to lose it all in a high risk area. Do you do the same thing when you go shopping for gifts in your home town? I think NOT. The RQ-170 may have been packed full of sensitive goodies do to the low risk nature of the mission it was on, and just like almost all techno catastrophes in history a series of things went terribly wrong leading to a total loss of the airframe unexpectedly over enemy territory.
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