One By Land If None By Sea?

Iran is claiming once again to have captured a US drone. The YouTube above consists of a boring eleven minutes broadcast by PressTV of Iranian military types doing a poor impression of Vanna White running their hands over what is claimed to be a US ScanEagle drone. If true, this would be the second drone captured by Iran in just over a year. Early last December, Iran first claimed to have shot down and then changed their wording to claiming to have “brought” down a much larger RQ-170 Sentinel drone, prompting the question of whether Iran managed to hack the drone.

There has been considerable additional drone action of late regarding Iran, with Iran firing on a Predator drone in November over the Gulf (perhaps in Iranian airspace, perhaps not). Iran then said later in November that they were reporting the US to the UN for violating Iranian airspace at least 8 times during October, presumably with drones.

Interestingly, it appears that Iran is claiming once again to have hacked this drone. From Fars News Agency:

Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi announced that his forces hunted a US Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) over the Persian Gulf after the drone violated the country’s airspace.

The UAV which had conducted several reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf general zone in the past few days was caught and brought under control by air defense units and control systems of the IRGC Navy.

We are now in the denial phase of the US response to this incident. The next bit in the Fars News article sets it up:

The IRGC navy commander announced that the haunted [sic] UAV was a ScanEagle drone, adding that “such drones are usually launched from large warships.”

Seizing on this bit, the US has quickly trotted out a US Navy spokesman to say that all ScanEagles are accounted for and none are missing. This same article also suggests that other countries in the region have ScanEagles and posits that Iran may have salvaged a ScanEagle that went down in the Gulf long ago.

[Heh. I missed the Fars typo saying the drone was “haunted” instead of “hunted” on my first several readings. That puts an entirely different spin on the situation…]

Interstingly, at the end,  the AP article does get around to pointing out that the US eventually changed its story on the RQ-170 [and see the update below the fold]:

In 2011, Iran claimed it brought down a CIA spy drone after it entered Iranian airspace from Iran’s eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which is equipped with stealth technology, was captured almost intact. Tehran later said it recovered data from the top-secret drone.

In the case of the Sentinel, after initially saying only that a drone had been lost near the Afghan-Iran border, American officials eventually confirmed the plane was monitoring Iran’s military and nuclear facilities. Washington asked for it back but Iran refused, and instead released photos of Iranian officials studying the aircraft.

I think we are on the way to another reversal of this type from the US. If you clicked on the ScanEagle link above, and as you can see from the PressTV footage, this drone has only a ten foot wingspan. Ships are not the only launching platform. In fact, the Australian ABC News network just posted this US Defense Department photo of a ScanEagle launch from the desert:

It would appear that we need to hear from more agencies than just the Navy on whether any ScanEagles are missing. The Navy spokesman appears to be claiming that no US drones are missing, but it seems likely that if it is proven that Iran captured a drone this week, his statement will be said to have applied to Navy drones only and that the captured drone was launched by another agency, unknown to the Navy when the spokesman’s remarks were prepared.

Update: I was away for several hours, but it looks like I was on the right track about the dissembling on only Navy drones being accounted for. The New York Times put this story up a couple of hours after mine:

A spokesman for the United States Navy in Bahrain denied the Iranian claim, saying that no American drones were missing.

“The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles operating in the Middle East region,” a spokesman for the United States Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain told Reuters. “Our operations in the gulf are confined to internationally recognized water and airspace. We have no record that we have lost any ScanEagles recently.”

However, the drone could have been one used by the Central Intelligence Agency, or even the National Security Agency, which both have eyes on Iran. Several kingdoms of the Persian Gulf also have ScanEagle drones.

 And then a couple more hours later, AP updated their story so that it now reads:

Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said there are no Navy drones missing in the Middle East.

“The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles operating in the Middle East region,” said Salata. “Our operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally recognized waters and airspace.”

Yup. We know where the Navy drones are, but whether other “agencies” may be missing a ScanEagle is another question entirely.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
11 replies
  1. Bill says:

    You are correct, of course, that we need to hear from more agencies than just the Navy, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that the Navy’s statement is complete gibberish. From the WSJ:

    But Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said that ScanEagles operated by the Navy “have been lost into the water” over the years, but there is no “record of that occurring most recently,” according to the Associated Press.

    What does that even mean? It doesn’t actually say that all ScanEagles are accounted for, it says just the opposite, that some have been lost. Also, what is the “no record of that occuring most recently”? Did he mean “recently” and just misspeak (obviously, the last time one was lost would be the “most recent”)? And why focus on the lack of a “record” instead of just saying it didn’t happen? It’s an oddly soft statement.

  2. GulfCoastPirate says:

    MoA has a post on this also this morning with the following in the comments section:

    ‘Texas college hacks drone in front of DHS

    There are a lot of cool things you can do with $1,000, but scientists at an Austin, Texas college have come across one that is often overlooked: for less than a grand, how’d you like to hijack a drone? A group of researchers led by Professor Todd Humphreys from the University of Texas at Austin Radionavigation Laboratory recently succeeded in raising the eyebrows of the US government. With just around $1,000 in parts, Humphreys’ team took control of an unmanned aerial vehicle owned by the college, all in front of the US Department of Homeland Security.
    After being challenged by his lab, the DHS dared Humphreys’ crew to hack into a drone and take command. Much to their chagrin, they did exactly that. Humphrey tells Fox News that for a few hundred dollars his team was able to “spoof” the GPS system on board the drone, a technique that involves mimicking the actual signals sent to the global positioning device and then eventually tricking the target into following a new set of commands. And, for just $1,000, Humphreys says the spoofer his team assembled was the most advanced one ever built.’

  3. Jim White says:

    @GulfCoastPirate: Even though they are landlocked in Austin, looks like a good new crop of pirates there.

    On a separate front, not sure what to make of it, but if you sit through the video, you see that the little knobby bit (my technical jargon is second to none!) on the top and near the front of the drone looks like it has been put back into place on a platform of very unevenly finished gray putty.

  4. bell says:

    funny thing about doing biz in secrecy.. in order for anyone to know much of anything, they have to go thru a lot of smoke and mirrors.. i think you are pretty good at this!

  5. Jim White says:

    This morning, Iran is claiming to have extracted the data from the drone. From PressTV:

    “Yes, we have fully extracted the drone’s data…,” the IRGC Public Relations Department said on Wednesday, referring to the ScanEagle drone — a long-endurance aircraft built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing.

    “The drone, in addition to gathering military data, used to pursue gathering data in the field of energy, especially the transfer of oil from Iran’s oil terminals,” the department said.

    It said that the capture of the aircraft helps discovery of “what kind of data they (the Americans) are after.”

    Regarding the US denial of the existence of the aerial vehicle in its drone fleet, the department said, “The reaction, the Americans have to the capture of their drones indicates the importance of this matter to them. This is not something they can easily deny.”

    The manner by which the aircraft was captured by the IRGC is very important and “it can even be said that the drone’s getting entangled in the IRGC Navy’s security net is more important than the [capture of] the RQ-170 [Sentinel] drone,” it said, referring to the Iranian military’s last-year downing of an intruding US drone, which was flying over the northeastern Iran city of Kashmar.

    http://presstv.com/detail/2012/12/05/276277/iran-extracts-data-from-captured-drone/

    That’s an interesting claim by the Iranians at the end. Most analysts have said that a ScanEagle capture isn’t nearly as important as the probable hacking and downing of the RQ-170, which was still a highly secret platform at the time it was downed last year. It sounds like maybe Iran is trying to say they have some sort of “safety net” technology now that will allow them to quickly find and hack our drones.

  6. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @Jim White: I forgot where I read it but didn’t the Russians supposedly sell the Iranians a system for attacking the drones?

    If that’s all the damage that was done they’re doing clean takedowns.

  7. tjallen says:

    I wonder whether a large fishing net, stretched between radio aerials or broadcast masts could capture one of these smaller drones. Even a large net dangling from a small plane or helicopter might entangle a drone. Maybe a net somehow fired from the ground?

    If a drone follows the same pre-programmed route day after day, why not try to put something in its way?

    Maybe you think I’m crazy to take the word “net” as a concrete object and not a virtual net or safety net. But maybe you’ve seen that England during WW2 had dirigibles with long wires hanging down, intended to entangle full-sized airplanes, so the concept is not so far out there.

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