December 24, 2011

IRAN: Access to a downed U.S. stealth drone to China

Actually Iranians had from the beginning said that they brought down the plane by hacking into its control link. Then came US confirmation of a lost drone without specifying type and also that there was not fire incident. So, there are now two possibilities, crash or hack. Since as per Pentagon it happened a week ago, and as per Iranians just hours ago, some one is lying here. Iranians were the first to disclose it so they get the score there. US only responded several hours later.

And there is more, here on wired, there were two articles a while back. One was about a virus that had infiltrated the control systems of the US drones. And the other article was about DARPA working hard to make that virus go away. Then this happens. You can draw your own conclusions. But these are not random events, since never till now a drone has gone haywire and into an adversaries airport. Drones might be stupid but they are not traitors by default settings that is. But those settings now seem to be edited and saved. Also why the RQ-170 would go haywire in Iran and not in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Korea or many other places it goes around. Why in Iran, the country that has the world's fastest growth rate in science and technology as per US government report "Science and engineering indicators: 2010"?

We need critical thinking here. Not just random rants.
(Anonymous Comment at WIRED MAGAZINE)

\Access to a downed U.S. stealth drone would offer plenty of scope for China to reverse engineer key technologies. Will Iran give it the chance?

The loss of a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone over eastern Iran has led to speculation that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will eventually find its way into Chinese hands. Access to the drone could allow China to use reverse engineering to incorporate key technologies into its own indigenous aerospace systems and to develop countermeasures that would make it harder for U.S. stealth UAVs and aircraft to operate near China. Iran has significant political, military, and financial incentives to provide such access, reversing the usual flow of technology from China to Iran.

Despite the claims of some Iranian officials, Iran lacks the technical capacity to exploit and duplicate the advanced technologies in the RQ-170 on its own. Providing access to China could therefore generate benefits in terms of expanded Iranian access to Chinese military technologies, potential future access to UAV countermeasures, and Chinese diplomatic support in Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

A robust arms sales relationship has existed between China and Iran since the early 1980s. China has supplied Iran with military hardware including fighter aircraft (F-7), fast-attack patrol vessels, anti-ship cruise missiles, and guidance technologies for use in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The dollar amount of official arms transfers in the decade 2000-2010 decreased from previous decades, but China continues to help Iran develop critical weapons programs. According to Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News agency, both Chinese and Russian officials have already made requests to inspect the RQ-170.

A recent National Defense University study by Phillip Saunders and myself looked at the history of China’s military aviation industry and gave numerous examples of how access to foreign aircraft designs and reverse engineering of components has helped China expand its aerospace technology capacity. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, China used reverse engineering to fill technical gaps and improve upon older Soviet designs. Access to restricted U.S. aircraft and aerospace technologies gained through third parties has also provided opportunities to apply reverse engineering. One commonly cited example is Chinese access to the F-16 gained through its close relationship with Pakistan. It’s difficult to determine the exact level of access China enjoyed, but open source references claim that Chinese technical personnel visiting Pakistan in the early 1980s were given the opportunity to examine the F-16 in detail (I recommend Wei Chen Lee’s excellent article “The Birth of a Salesman: China as an Arms Supplier”). Islamabad may have also transferred completed subsystems to China and provided access to the design and maintenance blueprints necessary to service the aircraft.

The Chinese military aviation industry’s technology base and ability to produce sophisticated aerospace systems has expanded rapidly over the past two decades, greatly improving its ability to exploit and potentially replicate technologies used in the RQ-170 drone. For example, China’s J-10 multi-role fighter incorporates metal alloys and composite materials for high strength and low weight. China developed the fourth generation J-11B fighter through a combination of coproduction and reverse engineering the Russian Su-27, with a particular focus on indigenizing subsystems. The unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighterprototype, which made its first test flight in January, demonstrates China’s ability to incorporate stealth technology in new aircraft designs.

China is also making significant efforts to develop and deploy its own UAV capabilities. In 2010, China displayed 25 different models of UAV at its biennial Zhuhai airshow. Officials representing China’s ASN Technology Group – one of several major UAV producers – claimed that the People’s Liberation Army is already operating two drones. The Institute for International Strategic Studies reported in its Military Balance 2010 that China has deployed several types of UAV for both “combat and reconnaissance” purposes, though it makes no specific mention of armed drones.
Even if China hasn’t yet fielded an armed UAV, the number of models in advanced stages of development makes it clear that this capability will be part of its air power arsenal in the near future. The deployment of UAV systems supports the Chinese military’s doctrinal imperative of increasing “informationization” to improve situational awareness and adds another layer of remote targeting and strike capability which can enhance China’s ability to deny military access on its periphery.

Access to the RQ-170 would give Chinese engineers the opportunity to study the drone’s sensor systems, control and communication systems, and the materials and design elements that make it stealthy. Access to the drone might further allow engineers to understand how its subsystems are fused together and how it operates as an integrated whole. Even if the Chinese aerospace industry can’t use reverse engineering to produce an indigenous equivalent of the RQ-170, Chinese engineers could probably learn enough from the RQ-170 to develop improved countermeasures and defenses against it and similar systems. China is already devoting considerable attention to improving its air defenses and developing means to defeat U.S. stealth technology, and so access to the RQ-170 would facilitate Chinese efforts to understand how advanced U.S. UAVs operate and to devise new ways to exploit their operational weaknesses.

It’s unclear whether Iranian air defenses or countermeasures played a role in downing the RQ-170. A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that there was a “95 percent chance” that the drone crashed due to technical malfunction.In later statements, U.S. officials flatly denied Iranian claims that a sophisticated cyber attack brought down the RQ-170, but have been less definitive about whether Iran might have used other means like GPS jamming to interfere with the drone’s flight.

But even if the loss of the RQ-170 over Iran was due to a technical malfunction, Chinese access to the drone may eventually help produce countermeasures and improved air defenses that make it harder for the United States to operate stealthy UAVs over hostile territory. Iran would be a prime customer for such systems; a Chinese commitment to sell UAVs and countermeasures might be part of Iran’s price tag for access to the RQ-170.

Joshua Wiseman is a Research Analyst at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, part of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Anonymous said...

"Iran lacks the technical capacity to exploit and duplicate the advanced technologies in the RQ-170 on its own"

- That is a complete load of rubbish. I could take 4 of my programmer / science buddies and disect that in its entirity in less than ayear. To suggest that a nation of 70 Million people, with a multibillion dollar budget cant analyse a piece of technology such as this shows how disconnected most westerners are with the reality of the outside world.

Creating technology from scratch is expensive and difficult. Replicating a device in your possession is trivially easy. What is most stealth technology? Kevlar / Epoxy frames with metallic oxide ceramic coating. Carbon fibre sections. This is old technology well in the public domain. A scape of paint gives its oxide composition. Download the hard drive and you have the entire OS in ASM.

It must be the diet of hollywood drivel that makes so many people believe the US government has some super secret ultra high tech under wraps, when the reality is that almost all these things are developed by private corporations who use the same technology in their commercially available products.

Anonymous said...

Iran, a country of 70 million, has such an advanced aerospace sector that it produces what exactly? Fighters? Bombers? Indigenous missile defense capabilities? No, no, and no. Iran has been interested in developing a nuclear capability since (presumably) the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Have they succeeded in reproducing a technology that the U.S. has possessed for over 60 years? What about ballistic missiles? They need a lot of help from China on that front. Perhaps you and your 4 programmer/science buddies should volunteer your services to the Iranians. Apparently they could use your assistance. You could tell them how easy it is to replicate a device in their possession and then explain how integrated sensor fusion is like wiring your apartment for surround sound. And I'm sure that a country with no ability to produce the sort of advanced avionics necessary for modern fighters has the industrial capacity to just whip up their own hardware. And how exactly does one 'download the hardware' as you suggest? In terms of software, I'm sure the RQ-170 is running Vista or something, so you and your buddies could probably just tweak it a little and then sell it to the Iranians to use for their stealth drone programme.

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