Iran says it hacked, brought down a U.S. drone, provides no evidence

UPDATE (12/8/2011): Iran has released video footage of Iranian officials inspecting what appears to be the downed drone.

Iran’s media outlets claim the nation’s military took control of a U.S. spy drone and brought it down within Iran. They’re attributing the grab to an electronic warfare unit that hacked the drone’s remote operating controls and brought it down softly so that the high-tech spy plane was mostly intact when the Iranian military got their hands on it.

Despite these claims, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Iran actually took over one of the U.S. military’s most advanced drones (the one they claim to have is an RQ-170 — a rare drone made by Lockheed Martin that is more advanced than its more widely-seen counterparts) and brought it into a controlled crash within their own borders. David Axe explains:

Iran frequently announces it has shot down U.S. surveillance drones, but has not, to our knowledge, produced any evidence of the kills. Even if Tehran did bag itself an American war ‘bot, it might not be an RQ-170. The editors at Press TV undermined their credibility by running  the story with a photo of an entirely different drone than the Beast of Kandahar.

Equally dubious is Iran’s insistence that the RQ-170, if that’s what it is, was forced down largely intact by an Iranian army “electronic-warfare unit.” The implication is that the Iranians somehow jammed the command signal beamed to the drone by remote operators.

That’s a pretty big deal, if true. The Predator and Reaper, America’s most numerous attack and surveillance drones, are remotely-controlled via radio link by a pilot on the ground. If the link is broken, they’re designed to enter a holding pattern or even return home. But these failsafes aren’t perfect, as the Air Force discovered in 2009 when a Reaper drone went haywire and had to be shot down by an F-15. The Air Force and Navy have admitted that the control link represents a critical weakness and have worked hard to make drones more autonomous.

It’s not hard to be skeptical of a nation making claims that they’ve achieved something that the public isn’t even sure is technically possible, especially when said nation’s reputation for telling the truth is as tarnished (to put it kindly) as Iran’s. As tensions between the U.K. and Iran boiled over last week and the west is increasingly concerned about the country’s nuclear program, Iran’s claim to have shot down the drone could be an attempt to paint themselves as victims of western oppression — “We just want to have a clean, secure energy future and these allied nations to the west are coming down so hard on us it’s impossible.”

There hasn’t been any retaliatory action so far, but an Iranian official is quoted in The Washington Post as hinting at offensive action in retaliation to the discovery of the spy drone.

Hours after the incident, Iranian state TV news was showing only stock pictures of RQ-170 stealth drones, not images from the crash. An unnamed military official told the Fars News Agency that Iran’s response “will not be limited to the country’s borders.”

As Axe says above, those weren’t even the right drone photos.

If, however, Iran’s story is true, the loss of this intact technology could seriously limit the effectiveness of the RQ-170 in Iran and elsewhere, should the country’s military go public with specifications.

U.S. officials have given only vague information about the drone, its mission, or its status:

The U.S. military released a short statement later Sunday on the missing drone. “The [unmanned aerial vehicle] to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week,” it said. “The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

With a no photos, doubt that what Iran claims is even possible, and U.S. officials giving only vague information about what happened, the validity of Iran’s claims cannot be confirmed by anyone but Iran itself.

As we say here on the world wide web: Pics or it didn’t happen.

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