American government officials reluctantly admitted in early December that Iran had taken possession of a highly sophisticated US stealth drone aircraft that was apparently in the middle of an information gathering flight over Iranian territory when it was intercepted. The US initially claimed that the drone had fallen into Iranian hands due to a “technical malfunction” on board. However according to an Iranian engineer who was interviewed by the American Christian Science Monitor newspaper later in the month, Iran was able to hack into the spy drone’s GPS navigational system in order to redirect it to land at an Iranian air base. If so (and most experts said this was probably the case), an electronic interception would be an extremely serious development that demonstrated Iran might be a more formidable opponent than previously anticipated if a full blown war develops as a result of any attack upon Iran’s nuclear facilities.This is actually good news, in a way. It means that drones, which pose such a tremendous threat to an oppressed civilian population, can be neutralized with a bit of technical know-how. Were the US military to ever loose armed drones upon its civilian population (so far they are only being used for unarmed surveillance), there is always the threat that a computer-savvy civilian will reprogram the drone to fire on its own controllers.
Known as the RQ-170 Sentinel, the pilot-less aircraft was subsequently closely inspected by Iranian officials. US defense experts said it was highly likely that Iran will share whatever information it gleans from the inspections with its Chinese allies, and possibly also with Russia as well. The Sentinel drones have been heavily deployed in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Iraq, which is now empty of US ground forces after the last American soldiers were pulled out in December. According to the report relayed by the Iranian engineer, Iranian specialists somehow figured out that the RQ-170 Sentinels weakest point is its GPS. They apparently acquired this vital information by examining previously downed American drones in September. "By putting noise (i.e. jamming) on the communications, you force the bird into auto-pilot. This is where the bird loses its brain," the engineer told the American newspaper. He maintained that the Iranian scientific team then simply programmed the drone to "land on its own where they wanted it to." American defense experts said the Pentagon has known since 2003 that the GPS system on the high flying drones is vulnerable to outside manipulation. The intercepted Sentinel’s base was reportedly in next door Afghanistan.
Earlier last year, an entire fleet of drones was infected by a computer virus, while two years ago, live drone video transmissions to American ground communications stations were successfully intercepted by Iraqi insurgents. Israeli media reports said that the captured drone was one of the subjects discussed between American President Barrack Obama and visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when they met at Camp David in Maryland the middle of December. However the main focus was said to be the evidence mentioned by the unnamed senior American source indicating Iran has actually begun to assemble a nuclear bomb, or is at least on the verge of doing so.
UPDATE June 2012 DEBKA now reports that it was Chinese cybersleuths in Iran who brought down the drone--no doubt finally putting into practice the information they have long been bleeding from the US Defense network in general and the drone program in particular.