New High School Course in Iran: Drone Hacking

AP informs us that a reformist newspaper in Iran has a story on a new course to be taught in high schools in Iran beginning in September:

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards paramilitary units plan to teach drone-hunting to school students, an Iranian newspaper reported Monday.

The report by pro-reform Etemad daily quoted Gen. Ali Fazli, acting commander of the Guard’s Basij militia, as saying the new program will be taught as part of a “Defensive Readiness” lesson in high schools from late September.

And just how would these drones be “hunted”? By hacking them, of course:

He did not elaborate but the plan suggests students would be taught how to track and bring down drone aircraft by hacking their computer systems.

But students could never hack a drone, could they?

[youtuber youtube=’’]


But, but, the video tells us that military drones are much more secure against hacking than civilian drones, aren’t they? Oh, wait. Wow, that was even the latest drone model the Iranians hacked?

I’m calling dibs on the Persian translation of “See something, hack something”.

Iran Claims to Have Decoded All Data From Captured ScanEagle and RQ-170 Drones: What Did They Learn?

Iran has published reports in which it claims to have decoded all data carried by the recently captured ScanEagle drone and the RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured last year. As proof of this decoding, Iran provided descriptions of the missions flown by the surveillance drones. The described mission for the ScanEagle fits well with what would be expected for its use, but the description for the RQ-170 conflicts with widely published accounts in the US media.

The decoding of the mission for the ScanEagle was reported last week, just one day after it was captured:

“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.”

This report for the ScanEagle fits well with what we were told about the use of ScanEagles in the region when Iran first made the claim of capturing this drone. However, the report today on decoding data from the RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured last year is more confusing: Read more

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]: Read more

Remember When Russia’s Enemy Helped the Mujahadeen Neutralize Russia’s Most Effective Weapon?

“Bluster”! “Exaggeration”!

Those are some of the words Joe Lieberman and some more credible people are using to dismiss Iran’s claim that it has accessed the data from the Sentinel drone it brought down last year.

Aside from “independent experts” pointing out the obvious fact that Iran could have gotten details about the Sentinel’s use to surveil Osama bin Laden’s compound from public reports (though how would it have gotten the specific dates?), the US security establishment has offered no detailed explanation of how Iran got the data it claims to have taken from the drone.

General Hajizadeh cited as evidence data that he said was extracted from the drone’s computer hard drives revealing its operations in the months before it went down in Iran — either because it was shot down, as Iranian officials have claimed, or because it experienced a technical failure, as the Americans have said.

The drone, he said, had undergone repairs in California in October 2010 and returned to Afghanistan in November 2010, where American officials have acknowledged it operated, though without specifying where its missions took it. He added that the drone’s computer memory revealed that it had flown over the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in an American raid in May 2011.

“Had we not accessed the plane’s softwares and hard disks, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve these facts,” General Hajizadeh said, according to the news agency Fars.

The White House and American intelligence officials declined Sunday to comment on the new claims, though independent experts expressed skepticism. They noted that the information about the drone’s activities — including its use in the Bin Laden raid — could have been drawn from public reports about the sophisticated aircraft.

That may not entirely confirm that the data cited by Iran is accurate, but it sure doesn’t refute it.

That said, all these experts bewailing “bluster” have not mentioned the more obvious explanation behind Iran’s claim–even though just three days ago the news was filled with reports of Russia and China asking for information on the drone and much of the coverage of this latest fact acknowledges that in their stories.

Consider: while the OBL surveillance (though not the timing) was publicly reported, the maintenance records cited by the Iranians probably aren’t. But those details are more likely to be available not in the drone itself, but on Lockheed’s networks, which were hacked (though Lockheed claims no data was compromised) last year; everyone blames China for that hack. And if China has been able to access drone data off our networks like they’ve been able to access all our other weapons development data, then it would presumably make it a lot easier to break the encryption on the Sentinel drone itself.

Our fear-mongering about Iran, as well as our overthrow of Qaddafi and efforts to overthrow Assad, has far more to do with efforts to shore up Saudi–and therefore US–hegemony in the key oil-producing region of the world than nukes. And while China has been cozying up to the Saudis in ways that ought to make us rethink our unquestioning pursuit of Saudi goals, our efforts to eliminate any counter-weight to Saudi power in the region is a real threat to China (not to mention our ability to wage war in the African countries China has spent a decade cultivating by pressing a few buttons in Nevada). Precisely the same kind of threat we judged Russian expansion into Afghanistan to be in 1979 when we started funneling money–and ultimately, some years later, Stinger missiles–to the mujahadeen. The Stinger missiles took away Russia’s air superiority and with it their ambitions to keep Afghanistan and ultimately, their commitment to empire more generally.

So while it may comfort the public to be told Iran could never manage to reverse engineer our drone, the possibility that China and Iran may be making real progress in neutralizing our favorite new weapon would presumably worry the national security establishment. Just in time for Iran to enter negotiations and in such a way that the implicit threat from China is understood.

These blustery experts should have listened to me when I warned that China’s ability to access our defense networks with ease was far more dangerous than Bradley Manning and his Lady Gaga CD.

Drone Pilots to Control Four Planes at Once: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


So soon on the heels of this week’s disclosure that seventeen percent of US drone pilots show signs of clinical distress and the debacle of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone being recovered and put on display by Iran, today’s latest announcement on drones reads like a piece from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.  In what appears to be all seriousness, the US is looking into the possibility of single drone operators controlling as many as four drones at one time:

Western militaries are experimenting with having future drone pilots command up to four aircraft at once, adding new potential challenges even as a top-secret U.S. drone’s crash in Iran exposed the risks of flying unmanned aircraft thousands of miles away.

And why would such a foolish move be necessary?  Why, it all comes down to insatiable demand for drone use and a military that wants to cut back on costs:

To save money and make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) less reliant on massive ground support crews, weapons manufacturers are working with military officials to develop more autonomous control systems and improve networking among planes.

At the moment, it can take hundreds of support staff on the ground to run a single drone for 24 hours, adding cost and complications at a time when budget-cutters are looking for billions of dollars of program cuts.

But new high-tech networking systems and ground stations in development would let a single pilot fly four drones, possibly even from different manufacturers, dramatically reducing the ground staff now needed for each plane.

Early work on such systems has been going on for some time, but heavy demand for more drones and mounting budget pressures are now bringing them closer to operational use.

If the US does institute such a foolish practice, let’s just hope none of the stressed out operators decide to channel their inner Charlie Callas.

“This Isn’t the Assassination Surveillance Drone You’re Looking For”


Before you read this David Sanger/Scott Shane piece reporting that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone that just went down in Iran was, “among other missions, [] looking for tunnels, underground facilities or other places where Iran could be building centrifuge parts or enrichment facilities,” I invite you to review what David Sanger has been writing for the last few months. Sure, he’s been the key person orchestrating the IAEA Iran report story, going back months. There’s also this story, curiously mixing reporting on the capture of the drone with a report citing sources describing surveillance photos of the Iranian missile testing base conveniently blown up while Iran’s top missile expert was there.

And then there’s this story from last month, which is or was titled “The Secret War with Iran.” It suggests how the assassins targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists knew exact details of their daily commutes, and then went on to describe the centrality of drones to our surveillance efforts against Iran.

COMMUTING to work in Tehran is never easy, but it is particularly nerve-racking these days for the scientists of Shahid Beheshti University. It was a little less than a year ago when one of them, Majid Shahriari, and his wife were stuck in traffic at 7:40 a.m. and a motorcycle pulled up alongside the car. There was a faint “click” as a magnet attached to the driver’s side door. The huge explosion came a few seconds later, killing him and injuring his wife.

On the other side of town, 20 minutes later, a nearly identical attack played out against Mr. Shahriari’s colleague Fereydoon Abbasi, a nuclear scientist and longtime member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Perhaps because of his military training, Mr. Abbasi recognized what was happening, and pulled himself and his wife out the door just before his car turned into a fireball. Iran has charged that Israel was behind the attacks — and many outsiders believe the “sticky bombs” are the hallmarks of a Mossad hit.


Iran may be the most challenging test of the Obama administration’s focus on new, cheap technologies that could avoid expensive boots on the ground; drones are the most obvious, cyberweapons the least discussed. It does not quite add up to a new Obama Doctrine, but the methods are defining a new era of nearly constant confrontation and containment. Drones are part of a tactic to keep America’s adversaries off balance and preoccupied with defending themselves. Read more

Two Drone Questions: How Did Iran Get It? What Will the Damage Be?

As I noted in an update to this post, the US has now admitted that the drone Iran claimed to down is, in fact, one of its new-fangled RQ-170 Sentinels. Sources have admitted anonymously that CIA was using the drone for reconnaissance, implicitly of Iran.

Which leaves a number of questions. First, how did the drone go down?

Marc Ambinder quotes a source suggesting the US lost communications with the drone, after which it glided to land inside Iran.

Controllers lost contact with the prized stealth unmanned aerial drone, the RQ-170 “Sentinel”, last week over western Afghanistan, said one government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Based on its projected glide path, officials assume it fell just inside the Iranian border.

But as he notes, if it had just lost communication with its controllers, it should have either returned to base or self-destructed.

The story that the drone was not flying over Iran, but flew into it as it came to the ground, is repeated in this CNN piece.

The officials said they did not believe the mission involved flying the aircraft directly over Iran because the reconnaissance capability of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone would allow it to gather information from inside Iran while remaining on the Afghanistan side of the border. The officials also for the first time confirmed to CNN it was an RQ-170 drone that was lost.

A third U.S. official confirmed that when the drone crashed, the United States briefly considered all potential options for retrieving the aircraft or bombing the wreckage, but those ideas were quickly discarded as impractical. There was also satellite surveillance over the site, which helped confirm the location of the wreckage before the Iranians retrieved it.

Of course, the US has reason to want to deny it had violated Iran’s airspace, though I don’t doubt the drone has significant surveillance powers.

In any case, satellite surveillance must be how this anonymous official confirms the drone came down largely intact.

Another U.S. official with access to intelligence said that losing the Sentinel is a major security breach. The official, who was not authorized to publicly speak about the information, wouldn’t say how the drone fell into Iranian hands, but confirmed that the downed drone was largely intact.
“It’s bad — they’ll have everything” in terms of the secret technology in the aircraft, the official said. “And the Chinese or the Russians will have it too.”

Which would seem to rule out some of the speculation of a number of experts quoted by the LAT, who still can’t seem to explain how the drone was brought down intact, but it did not return home (as it would have been programmed to do) or self-destruct. Moon of Alabama offers some thoughts here.

Now, I still think it’s possible–as some of these sources suggest–that this might be an intentional ploy on our part. Though I can’t see doing that with a Sentinel.

Which leads me to a point a few of these sources note. Iran would only be able to make so much use of the drone (aside from politically). It would likely need Russia’s or China’s help to reverse engineer it.

So I wonder: Is it possible that one of the countries everyone agrees would have much more capability to to reverse engineer the technology–Russia and/or China–might have been involved in downing the drone? After all, both are getting fed up with our drive to war against Iran. And, as Ambinder reveals, the event has resulted in the grounding of all the Senintels.

An investigation is under way and the rest of the small fleet of classified UAVs have been grounded. They number less than 10 and are piloted by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

Downing this drone would seem to be useful to Iran in several possible ways. First, the PR victory, particularly if it can refute the American claim the drone wasn’t over Iranian airspace. Next, if it can reverse engineer the stealthy and communications technology, probably with help, it can cut into American advantage on drone technology. It seems that downing the drone has already stopped the Americans from using other Sentinels to surveil it. And here’s one question: What would it take for Iran to demonstrate what the drone was surveilling? That is, could it do more than just prove the US had violated its airspace, but tie the US back to some of the attacks within Iran?

Update: Here’s another question. Why the fuck is the government telling us Iran that the drone has been watching what they claim to be Hezbollah training camps before?

The RQ-170 stealth drone that crashed in Iran last week has been used by the CIA in the past to spy on Iran’s nuclear facilities and Hezbollah training camps inside Iran, U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday.

Unless that’s another feint to distract from who would be most interested in that “Hezbollah camp”?

Update: More uncanny leaking on the CIA’s activities in the area.

According to these officials, the U.S. has built up the air base Shindad, Afghanistan, with an eye to keeping a long-term presence there to launch surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary.

I sort of wonder whether David Petraeus hasn’t come out of his undisclosed location?