Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer (Video)
In an exclusive interview, an engineer working to unlock the secrets of the captured RQ-170 Sentinel says they exploited a known vulnerability and tricked the US drone into landing in Iran.
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The vulnerability remains unresolved, and a paper presented at a Chicago communications security conference in October laid out parameters for successful spoofing of both civilian and military GPS units to allow a "seamless takeover" of drones or other targets.Skip to next paragraph
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To “better cope with hostile electronic attacks,” the US Air Force in late September awarded two $47 million contracts to develop a "navigation warfare" system to replace GPS on aircraft and missiles, according to the Defense Update website.
Official US data on GPS describes "the ongoing GPS modernization program" for the Air Force, which "will enhance the jam resistance of the military GPS service, making it more robust."
Why the drone's underbelly was damaged
Iran's drone-watching project began in 2007, says the Iranian engineer, and then was stepped up and became public in 2009 – the same year that the RQ-170 was first deployed in Afghanistan with what were then state-of-the-art surveillance systems.
In January, Iran said it had shot down two conventional (nonstealth) drones, and in July, Iran showed Russian experts several US drones – including one that had been watching over the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
In capturing the stealth drone this month at Kashmar, 140 miles inside northeast Iran, the Islamic Republic appears to have learned from two years of close observation.
Iran displayed the drone on state-run TV last week, with a dent in the left wing and the undercarriage and landing gear hidden by anti-American banners.
The Iranian engineer explains why: "If you look at the location where we made it land and the bird's home base, they both have [almost] the same altitude," says the Iranian engineer. "There was a problem [of a few meters] with the exact altitude so the bird's underbelly was damaged in landing; that's why it was covered in the broadcast footage."
Prior to the disappearance of the stealth drone earlier this month, Iran’s electronic warfare capabilities were largely unknown – and often dismissed.
"We all feel drunk [with happiness] now," says the Iranian engineer. "Have you ever had a new laptop? Imagine that excitement multiplied many-fold." When the Revolutionary Guard first recovered the drone, they were aware it might be rigged to self-destruct, but they "were so excited they could not stay away."
* Scott Peterson, the Monitor's Middle East correspondent, wrote this story with an Iranian journalist who publishes under the pen name Payam Faramarzi and cannot be further identified for security reasons.
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