Malfunction Likely Put U.S. Drone in Iranian Hands

December 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Andrea Shalal-Esa and David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The unmanned U.S. drone Iran said on Sunday it had captured was programmed to automatically return to base even if its data link was lost, one key reason that U.S. officials say the drone likely malfunctioned and was not downed by Iranian electronic warfare.

U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about Iranian claims that its military downed an RQ-170 unmanned spy plane, a radar-evading, wedge-shaped aircraft dubbed “the Beast of Kandahar” after its initial sighting in southern Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan said the Iranians might be referring to an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that disappeared on a flight in western Afghanistan late last week. But they declined to say what type of drone was involved.

A U.S. government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the plane was on a CIA mission. The CIA and Pentagon both declined to comment on the issue.

The incident came at a time of rising tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. The United States and other Western nations tightened sanctions on Iran last week and Britain withdrew its diplomatic staff from Tehran after hard-line youths stormed two diplomatic compounds.

The United States has not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over the program, which Washington believes is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

The RQ-170 Sentinel, built by Lockheed Martin, was first acknowledged by the U.S. Air Force in December 2009. It has a full-motion video sensor that was used this year by U.S. intelligence to monitor al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan ahead of the raid that killed him.

Former and current military officials familiar with the Sentinel said they were skeptical about Iranian media reports that Iran’s military brought down one of the drones in eastern Iran, especially since Tehran has not released any pictures of the plane.

POSSIBLE ‘CATASTROPHIC’ MALFUNCTION

The aircraft is flown remotely by pilots based in the United States, but is also programmed to autonomously fly back to the base it departed from if its data link with U.S.-based pilots is lost, according to defense analyst Loren Thompson, who is a consultant for Lockheed and other companies.

Other unmanned aircraft have a similar capability, including General Atomics’ Predator drone, industry sources said.

The fact that the plane did not return to its base suggests a “catastrophic” technical malfunction, agreed one industry executive familiar with the operation and programming of unmanned aerial vehicles.

U.S. officials say they always worry about the possibility of sensitive military technologies falling into the hands of other countries or terrorist groups, one reason U.S. planes quickly destroyed a stealthy helicopter that was damaged during the bin Laden raid in Pakistan.

Many classified weapons systems have self-destruction capabilities that can be activated if they fall into enemy hands but it was not immediately clear if that was the case this time.

In this case, the design of the plane and the fact that it had special coatings that made it nearly invisible to radar were already well documented. If it survived a crash, all on-board computer equipment was heavily encrypted.

Lockheed confirmed that it makes the RQ-170 drone, which came out of its secretive Skunk Works facility in southern California, but referred all questions about the current incident to the Air Force.
Thompson and several current and former defense officials said they doubted Iranian claims to have shot the aircraft down because of its stealthy features and ability to operate at relatively high altitudes.

Iran was also unlikely to have jammed its flight controls because that system is highly encrypted and uses a direct uplink to a U.S. satellite, they said.

“The U.S. Air Force has experienced declining attrition rates with most of its unmanned aircraft. However this is a relatively new aircraft and there aren’t many in the fleet, which means that malfunctions and mistakes are more likely to occur,” Thompson said.

One former defense official familiar with the RQ-170 and other unmanned aircraft said he “absolutely” agreed that the aircraft was not lost due to any action by Iran.

Exact details about the drone remain classified but industry insiders say the plane flies at around 50,000 feet and may have a wing span of up to 90 feet. Its shape harkens back to the batwing design of the radar-evading B-2 bomber.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

13-50

Insurgents Intercept Drone Video in King-Size Security Breach

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Noah Schachtman, Wired Magazine

Even worse…

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military depends on an array of drones to snoop on and stalk insurgents. Now it looks as if insurgents are tapping into those same drones’ broadcasts, to see what the flying robot spies see. If true — and widespread — it’s potentially one of the most serious military security breaches in years.

“U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds,” Wall Street Journal reports. “In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.”

How’d the militants manage to get access to such secret data? Basically by pointing satellite dishes up, and waiting for the drone feeds to pour in. According to the Journal, militants have exploited a weakness: The data links between the drone and the ground control station were never encrypted. Which meant that pretty much anyone could tap into the overhead surveillance that many commanders feel is America’s most important advantage in its two wars. Pretty much anyone could intercept the feeds of the drones that are the focal point for the secret U.S. war in Pakistan.

Using cheap, downloadable programs like SkyGrabber, militants were apparently able to watch and record the video feed — and potentially be tipped off when U.S. and coalition forces are stalking them. The $26 software was originally designed to let users download movies and songs off of the internet. Turns out, the program lets you nab Predator drone feeds just as easily as pirated copies of The Hangover.

And here’s the real scandal: Military officials have known about this potential vulnerability since the Bosnia campaign. That was over 10 years ago. And, as Declan McCullagh observes, there have been a series of government reports warning of the problem since then. But the Pentagon assumed that their adversaries in the Middle East and Central Asia wouldn’t have the smarts to tap into the communications link. That’s despite presentations like this 1996 doozy from Air Combat Command, which noted that that “the Predator UAV is designed to operate with unencrypted data links.”

If you think militants are going to be content to just observe spy drone feeds, it’s time to reconsider. “Folks are not merely going to listen/watch what we do when they intercept the feeds, but also start to conduct ‘battles of persuasion’; that is, hacking with the intent to disrupt or change the content, or even ‘persuade’ the system to do their own bidding,” Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, tells Danger Room.

This has long been the nightmare scenario within Pentagon cybersecurity circles: a hacker not looking to take down the military grid, but to exploit it for his own purposes. How does a soldier trust an order, if he doesn’t know who else is listening — or who gave the order, in the first place? “For a sophisticated adversary, it’s to his advantage to keep your network up and running. He can learn what you know. He can cause confusion, delay your response times — and shape your actions,” one Defense Department cybersecurity official tells Danger Room.

Despite this rather massive vulnerability, drone operations show no signs of letting up. According to the Associated Press, “two suspected U.S. missile strikes, one using multiple drones, killed 17 people in a Pakistani tribal region.”

Meanwhile, military officials assure are scrambling to plug the hole. “The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones,”  the Journal notes. “Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes.”

So it may be quite some time before this enormous security breach is filled.

– Nathan Hodge and Noah Shachtman