It seems to be drone season here at TechLahore! Right after we wrote about Pakistan’s Burraq UCAV, one of the hottest pieces of news that came out revolved around the downing or “forced landing” of a top secret US drone in Iran. The RQ-170, also known as “The Beast of Kandahar” was only deployed in late 2009 and represents the absolute cutting edge in American reconnaissance and autonomous drone/UAV technology. Early reports about the incident revolved around the debate of whether the drone had in fact been downed, what kind of drone it was, how it was downed and so on. It took several days for the facts to come to light. Initially, the US had declared via ISAF, that a drone “may” have “strayed” into Iran as a consequence of loss of control during a mission over eastern Afghanistan. On the face of it, this was a ridiculous position to take because it wouldn’t make sense for the US to use a stealth drone for missions over Afghanistan, a country over which it has complete airspace control. Following this, a US spokesperson explicitly confirmed that satellite pictures had shown the drone lay utterly destroyed and was hence not going to be useful to the Iranians. Then further tidbits of information started to come out. That in fact the drone was not operated by ISAF, but by the CIA. That in fact it was conducting a spy mission over Iran. And yes, that the drone was in tip-top shape and was, rather unfortunately, the vaunted RQ-170.
All this was rather embarrassing and quite reminscent of the May Day incident in 1960 when Nikita Khruschev’s Soviet Union shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U2 spy-plane. Interestingly, the Soviets held on to the wreckage for a day or so and let the Americans proclaim that the aircraft downed over the USSR was in fact a “weather balloon”. Once the U2 wreckage was shown, President Eisenhower had to back down from this position. But confidence was high in the US that Gary Powers would have either died, or would have taken the poison pill was he supplied with. Neither happened, and three days into the incident, Gary Powers was paraded in Moscow, leading to a very unfortunate situation for the US State Dept. By the way, if you are interested in learning more about the U2 incident, you should read Michael Beschloss’ excellent book on the subject, titled “May Day”.
But let us come to the topic we are exploring here today. Now that Iran has this drone, what US tech has possibly been compromised? What could the Iranians learn from this and what areas should the US now be super-careful about? Here’s what we think:
1. Airframe and low-observable design: While this is by no means the most important piece of information that can be gleaned from this drone, being in possession of a confirmed LO platform does allow someone to analyze it completely and replicate it. As far as the physical elements of design which contribute to stealth go, Iran should be able to get 100% of that information simply by observing, measuring and modeling this aircraft.
2. Materials: Reverse engineering many materials is entirely possible by studying their chemical composition. For example, RAM coatings. If the RQ-170 employs these, they should be analyzable and replicable given a reasonably advanced chemical industry, which Iran certainly has. It is not unreasonable to expect that Iran will be able to reverse engineer any chemical RAM coatings/”paint” used on the RQ-170.
3. Propulsion: There are two elements involved here; the engine itself, and the techniques used to reduce the engine’s heat/sound signature. Let me start by tackling the first. We don’t know how advanced the power plant in the RQ-170 is, but reverse engineering a complex jet engine may not be possible in a short timeframe. Would it be particularly important? Probably not, because the RQ-170 is not known for its high performance in terms of power or speed. Could Iran pass on information about the engine to the Russians and Chinese and let them study it for what that’s worth? Sure. But this should not be a particularly interesting subject for the Iranians in the RQ-170 context… to our minds, at least.
4. Techniques used for signature reduction: The RQ-170 design will likely employ numerous techniques to reduce the heat (IR) signature emanating from the engine or other active sources in the aircraft. It would also likely use techniques to reduce audio signature. Iran can definitely get a lot of value by studying the design, materials used and techniques employed to achieve this signature reduction. The Iranians have their own stealth project, the “Sofre Mahi”. This analysis could help them advance that stealth fighter development effort.
5. The actual audio signature of the RQ-170: This speaks more to detecting the presence of aircraft like the RQ-170 in future. For example, does the powerplant in the ’170 give off a particular “whine”, i.e. does it have a distinct audio signature? Depending on whether this is a high frequency, it could be possible to deploy audio sensors particularly tuned to listen for this pitch as a means for detection.
6. The all-aspect radar signature of the RQ-170: No design is perfect. There may be certain aspects which produce a higher signature than others. Now that Iran can study the full response profile of an RQ-170, it may learn more about how to detect these aircraft in future using radar configurations.
7. The cameras and sensors: This would be a huge asset for the Iranians in two ways. First, they will now know the exact capabilities of this surveillance platform in terms of resolution, light spectrum performance and numerous other aspects. This means they could plan on how to evade such surveillance. Because it takes a long time to develop new cameras which provide a quantum leap in capability, for some time, the Iranians will now know and understand the US state of the art. This might help them work around these capabilities for the foreseeable future. Second, if not in all respects, at least some pieces of the camera will be useful to Iran from a reverse engineering perspective. High quality optics and CCD sensors may be replicable only with assistance from China, but given the political realities of today, We can safely assume the Chinese will be leveraged in this case. The sensors are not just limited to cameras; legend has it that the RQ-170 can pick up chemical traces and can also intercept electronic communication. All these sensors would be a windfall not only because Iran can now learn how to avoid detection, but also due to the reverse engineering possibilities.
8. The transceivers: There will be numerous transceivers on board and each of these will give the Iranians lots of information that can be used to develop cyber warfare capabilities to neutralize US drones, and also the means to eavesdrop on US communications. For example, the satellite transponder will tell the Iranians exactly which frequencies are used by US drones for sat link-up. Could the Iranians develop balloon-based transmitters that “jam” or “spoof” these frequencies and deploy these over their own country, thus making it difficult for these drones to have a clean sat linkup? The Iranians will also discover the frequencies and methods used for line-of-sight control of these drones – these can similarly be useful to jam, confuse or otherwise take control of the drone. If the Iranians are to be believed, they have already mastered the art of the forced drone takeover, but being in physical possession of the transponders can only help them more. But what about encryption, you might ask. Hang on… I’ll get to that.
9. The algorithms: This is a tough one. One line of thought says that it would be impossible to extract any “code” from this platform. Perhaps. But another line of thinking says that the processors and controllers employed in military projects are not much different to those available commercially. Yes, they have much higher tolerances and quality standards, but a lot of the basic technology is the same. The RQ-170 would likely be full of programmed controllers which carry “firmware” or code that encapsulates various algorithms employed by the aircraft. For example, what does the aircraft do when sat link up is lost? Knowing these behaviours can help Iran advance their own drone and stealth programs, as well as understand how to foil the functioning of the RQ-170 and other US drones (it is likely that many of these control algorithms and “protocols” would be similar for many US drone types). But can the Iranians get to the “code”? Wouldn’t it be encrypted? Yes. It would be. But blackbox reverse engineering techniques can still be used where a certain set of inputs are applied and the output behaviour studied. You may not see the code, but you know what it does.
10. Encryption: This would apply both to the radio/satellite transceiver links as well as to any data or code stored on the RQ-170′s own systems. It is important to point out that just knowing specifically what kind of encryption is being employed, and being in possession of a “decoder”, i.e. the RQ-170, is going to help the Iranians, and possibly the Chinese. Recall that a big effort during WW-II involved the allies just getting their hands on an Enigma machine, the German encryption device. Will the RQ-170 be an “Enigma” for Iran or China? Obviously, the state of the art in encryption has advanced and it won’t be quite that simple. However, it is also important to point out that the Chinese are definitely in possession of equipment that poses a significant decryption threat. Take a look at the top 10 super computers and you’ll find that China was #1 until just a few months ago, and will be #1 again soon. The massive computational power required to decrypt at least some of the information assets aboard the RQ-170 might well be within China’s reach. Quantum computing, in particular, has shown that encryption is not as strong as once thought.
There are probably many more hidden secrets aboard the ’170, but in the interest of keeping this a “Top 10″ list, we’ll take a breather here and see how events unfold.
At the end of the day, we all just want peace and calm in the world. It’s not clear what man has ever achieved by going at his fellow man’s throat. Let’s hope things calm down globally and we can finally live in a peaceful world where Veena Malik’s antics are the only polarizing issue!