WASHINGTON: Speculation on how Iran was able to capture the Pentagon’s stealthy RQ-170 unmanned aircraft has consumed defense and intelligence insiders for weeks. But recent reports based on sources in Tehran claim the highly-classified drone was brought down by an Iranian cyberattack.
Iranian engineers were allegedly able to hack into the unmanned aircraft’s control systems and trick the drone’s guidance systems to think it was landing in U.S-held territory in Afghanistan. In fact, Iranian hackers guided the CIA-operated aerial drone to land in Iran, according to today’s story in the Christian Science Monitor. The so-called ‘Beast of Kandahar’ was conducting intelligence operations over Iran at the time of its capture. Gaps in the plane’s global positioning system allowed Iranian military officials to take control of the plane from its CIA handlers. Iranian intelligence learned about the GPS vulnerabilities by examining other American drones captured by Tehran, according to the story.
If such claims are true, a cyberattack would explain the remarkable condition the RQ-170 was in when Iranian military leaders put their trophy on display live on television. The lack of damage on the aircraft led many to believe the drone was a fake. Retired three-star general and former head of Air Force intelligence David Deptula wouldn’t comment whether the RQ-170 was taken down by a cyber attack. (Deptula is a member of Breaking Defense Board of Contributors) But this is not the first time America’s fleet of unmanned aircraft have been exploited in the cyber realm.
In 2009, Taliban forces were able to hack into live video feeds coming from Air Force Predator drones by using commercially-produced hardware. Air Force officials at the time said those gaps did not extend into the aircraft’s control systems. Further, service officials claimed the data encryption and security standards built into the U.S. aerial drone fleet couldn’t be cracked by the Taliban or any other adversary.