When we lost a drone to Iran the other day, I thought, “Wow. Someone is in trouble.” What I didn’t think was, “Wow. It’s the end of the world. Now Iran has our most top-secret information.” I wouldn’t even blog about this, because it’s really a non-issue, but then a drone crashed in the Seychelles islands doing work over Somalia, and the next thing you hear is that OUR ENTIRE DRONE INFRASTRUCTURE IS IN DANGER. Really? Come on. Drones are made for one thing: Disposable intelligence.
Yes, we lost a drone in Iran, but it’s not that big of a deal. Yes, it’s a semi-stealth drone, and yes, it had a lot of high-grade optics on board, but it’s a DRONE. We built the thing knowing we would eventually lose one. We did not build it with our most precious secrets, then set it free wondering what we would do when it lost contact with its ground station. Which happens all the damn time. We lose drones on a regular basis. Here’s a database of such losses from official reports. It happens frequently. I saw it happen innumerable times in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just the price of doing business. So, given that history, there’s no way we would implant our most top-secret capability in a drone.
The biggest issue with the loss to Iran is whether it simply lost contact with its ground station (which happens more times than we like to admit), or whether Iran had the capability to hack our systems, given our encryption. A lot of folks are talking about that right now, and maybe they’re right, but I think not. The evidence used is a specific group highjacking the downlink from the video – back when we didn’t encrypt the downlink – and now applying that to the flight mechanics. Yes, there have been some groups that have been able to steal the downlink of the feed – before we began encrypting it – but that’s a world apart from highjacking the actual controls of the aircraft. The downlink is nothing more than a signal like anything being used for Dish network on your TV. It’s like seeing the DVD movie in the headrest of a car, but not driving the car itself. Bad enough, because the enemy was now seeing what we were seeing, but nowhere near as bad as taking control of the drone.
We now encrypt the downlink, and have always encrypted the flight controls, with a cipher that’s about as hardened as possible. I find it hard to believe that the Iranians brought down our drone by taking control of it. Maybe I’m wrong, and will eat crow in a couple of months, but my vote is it crashed due to a glitch, which anyone who’s an RF model pilot will tell you happens all the time. When a plane loses contact, it goes into glide mode, attempting to land at the nearest opportunity. This opportunity proved to be a boon to Iran, but it’s not a catastrophe to us.
The intel collected on the mission profile is the only thing that would cause me to pause. Luckily, the intel from the drone is real-time. It’s not taking pictures and storing it for a drop in outer space like the old spy planes. It’s transmitting continuously and being collected by computers at the ground station. Thus, when the thing came to earth, it had nothing in its storage. All the Iranians got were some high-speed cameras and a really big remote controlled plane. The cameras themselves aren’t classified, and, while the Iranians might learn something from them, the Chinese probably looked at them and said, “Ours are better.”
Because they can’t admit that we kick their ass in that arena…
Of course, the administration probably didn’t expect the Iranians to find it in the middle of the desert and then display it to the world, but that’s the way of things. In the end, it’s just not that big of a deal.