Friday, 16 December 2011

The risks of technology

A couple of weeks ago the US announced that they had lost contact with one of their exceptionally high-tech and modern RQ-170 Sentinel drones. Later the Iranians said that an electronic warfare unit had captured the drone.

The Iranians later showed detailed video of what appears to be an RQ-170. It seemed remarkably intact - although the underside and undercarriage could not be seen, the top seemed nowhere near as damaged as would be expected from a shoot-down or even a crash landing. However the video and pictures are far clearer than would be expected if they were trying to fake the images.

Naturally, some people have been in denial about this. One theory has it that the Iranians had a mock-up ready made, and when the US lost contact with their drone the Iranians used the mock-up to pretend they had captured it. Whilst it is likely that nations may construct mock-ups of aggressor craft - for identification training if nothing else - it would be an embarrassing strategy if the real wreckage was discovered.

Another is that a rogue Iranian agent in the US military had deliberately crashed the plane within Iran. This seems rather unrealistic.

Today it is alleged that the Iranians forced the craft to land. The control protocols for the aircraft are certainly encrypted (although embarrassingly some of the data such as the video may not be) and I doubted that they had actually taken control of it. However today's claim does make sense, at least to an armchair (in)expert such as myself.

The drones are controlled from stations that can be anywhere in the world; for instance Britain's Predator and Reaper drones are flown from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (*). Control signals are encrypted and sent over to the drones, presumably by satellite. If the radio signal is lost then the drones are programmed to fly automatically to a friendly base for landing, using GPS for positional information (**).

The Iranians are claiming that they jammed the 'proper' control signals coming from the US. This is important; they are not claiming to have hacked and decrypted the control signals, just to have blocked them. Without the signals, the drones would have automatically flown back to a base. This is where the Iranians got clever. It is possible to block and alter ('spoof') GPS signals; this is believed to be what is going on when GPS and SatNav users are warned that their devices will not work. The Iranians are claimed to have spoofed the drone's GPS signals so that it thought it was flying back to a friendly base.

Damage possibly occurred to the drone's underside on landing as the strip in Iran had a slightly different altitude to the base the drone believed it was landing at.

This claim is more plausible than the other alternatives. No real 'hacking' in the traditional senses was needed; instead gaping holes in the security logic were exploited. As much as I dislike the Iranian regime, the engineers must be congratulated for a very clever coup. My only question is why they have shown their hand so early; it gives the west time to understand the problems and close the exploits.

Unfortunately this will have serious implications. The obvious one - that the Americans have lost some of their top-secret military technology - might not be the most important. It it alleged that, although new, the RQ-170 does not use cutting-edge technology as they expected to lose one over enemy territory eventually, either through accident or combat. Far worse is the fact that American (and indeed western) commanders will have large doubts about the chances of their drones reaching a target in battle. And that may mean more manned aircraft are needed, and more friendly lives put at risk.

I am less bothered about the Iranian's claims that they will be able to reverse-engineer the aircraft. Although they have very capable engineers - they have allegedly been keeping some F14's in the air despite US sanctions and lack of spares - it would be a major task and money better spent on more useful platforms. It would be much more likely they would learn important lessons about how the drones work and how they can be combated. The Russians or Chinese would be in a much better position to take advantage of the aircraft.

(*) There is a valid debate to be had about how much we really control these drones. We have purchased them; would the US allow us to use them in a campaign that was against US interests? I am amazed that we have not paid to have the control stations here in the UK for a truly independent system.

(**) I would be surprised if they only used GPS for positional information, but it is possible. If so it was a major lack of foresight.

1 comment:

Ally761 said...
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