GUEST POST | Why The Beast Was Lost

By Aditya Mandrekar

With news that Iran may have downed one of the United States’ most secret spy-planes — an RQ-170 Sentinel built Lockheed-Martin — the internet has been abuzz with claims, counter-claims and outright denials that it could have happened. Now that Iran has officially released footage of the UAV in their possession – one that does resemble the ‘Beast of Kandahar’ from the few photos available – speculation has turned to precisely why the UAV is in Iranian hands.

But first, two things that can be inferred from the video released:
  • The UAV may be a blended wing design, but there are no obvious “stealth” characteristics. A meshed air intake is not enough to make an aircraft low-observable and could simply be there to prevent foreign object damage (FOD). The control surfaces too do not have any serrated (jagged) edges that are needed to spread radio wave reflections; neither do various panels on the aircraft.
  • Amusingly, the aircraft is placed on a plinth instead of its own landing gear. Which means either the gear stayed retracted or was torn off on landing, either pointing to signs that it wasn’t made to land in a controlled manner.
So how is the Beast in Iranian hands?

The most exotic claim is of course ‘it was hacked’. This is also the one least likely to be true and ironically the one explanation that the speculators seem to long for. The possibility of a spy plane flying with a datalink continuously active is quite low. There are many reasons for this, but security (exposing the communication channel for long durations) and power consumption (to power the receiver and, in some cases, a transmitter for two-way communication) are chief concerns. UAVs obviously can be fed course correction updates in real time if sudden changes are necessary. But these will be brief and short transmissions that will be irregular and hard to break into – encryption levels are beyond the average supercomputer’s power to break in reasonable time, not to mention the possibility of passcodes changing every mission.

This leaves open a possibility where the Iranians could have mimicked a remote command – but then again they would have to have the same datalink equipment and encryption methods as the CIA and an ability to transmit it to the exact spot in the sky they want to, and at the right time. And even if this is the case, the moment an operator noticed the UAV going off course, the CIA would have not hesitated to countermand its last commands and restore communication, this time either on different frequencies or with different codes.

Next, there is speculation that the UAV was “jammed”. The response to this is on two levels: What was jammed? And, so what?

As mentioned before, the average spy craft will not always have its receiver running apart from intelligence gathering purposes. So the probability that its control could be “jammed” is insignificant. What is possible, though, is that the GPS receiver(s) on the Sentinel could be jammed with the attempt to deny navigational aid. This is unlikely too because for one, it means flooding the UAV at its operating altitude with enough radio energy on ALL channels (including US DoD military GPS frequencies) from above (since the antennae are on the upper surface) to attempt to disable satellite receivers.

And even if GPS data was lost… so what? Between inertial sensors, magnetic compasses and radio homing beacons, UAVs are not 100% reliant on GPS for navigation. In fact, autonomous flight control software is written with explicit instructions built-in that unmanned aircraft facing loss of critical sensors have to head to a particular location or direction where recovery can be attempted, either through re-establishing system integrity or getting it to land in a controlled location.

Then there is the initial claim by Iran that the Sentinel was shot down. This seems unlikely to me; there is no sign of external damage on the upper body, and more importantly, none on the leading and trailing edges of the aircraft. This leads me to believe that there was no contact between AAA rounds and the drone, let alone a missile proximity explosion.

The more one looks at it, the simplest answer seems to fit the data best – equipment failure. As unglamorous as it sounds, loss of propulsion is the most likely reason for the loss of the Sentinel. Whether an engine failure or a fuel leak, it is most likely that the aircraft lost power and with it, any hope of making it back. The Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan region is one of the least forgiving environments of operation, and it is not hard to imagine dust, sand and gravel causing lasting damage.

There is also the likelihood that power to the control surfaces was lost, but it is hard to believe that the Sentinel does not have at least dual redundant controls. However, the aircraft is smaller than previously imagined, so it may be that the source of electrical power is single. If this is a battery, it could be simply battery failure. If the power was delivered from a turbine-driven alternator, then it is even more evident that loss of engine power would mean a loss of electrical power.

ADITYA MANDREKAR is an electrical and avionic systems engineer who currently writes embedded software for an electronics company in the UK.

This post reflects the independent views of the contributing writer.

39 thoughts on “GUEST POST | Why The Beast Was Lost”

  1. i strongly believe it is CIA's Trojan horse in Iran..;-). I am sure this puppy has been towed to Iran's top secret research labs or military base, an active GPS will reveal the location.
    Just wait till the missiles start taking off from Israel .;-)

  2. if its operating in an enemy territory it it is obvious that the a/c may fall in to enemy hands, if some thing goes wrong!!! in that case it should have self destruction mechanism, similar to that of an out of control satellite launch vehicles.

  3. Iranians may give Chinese scientists access to the aircraft…
    that help them to develop technology (Doppler radar technology)for detecting stealth aircraft of US..

    Chinese may improve their own radar-evading aircraft J-20….

  4. Any professional Army which has achieved this, here called Exotic Claim, would never pubic this Hijacking capability specially one which is going to face more of these UAVs and a certain war with its user, instead it will continue hijacking/downing any trespassing UAV and keep its enemy itching.

    So, Iranian Army either bluffing or is a horde of complete idiots.

  5. I also doubt the hacking theory. Equipment malfunction seems to be the most probable answer.
    However I assume that the craft might have suffered minimal damage as considering the 'experimental' nature of the craft, it could well have had a parachute recovery system; which in my consideration would have mitigated any major structural damages.

    Also it its very surprising that such a secretive craft did not have any James Bond-esque self destruct mode…

  6. well aditya, it feels like you want to brag your "electronics know how" more than providing an answer or analysis here. We all know the techy stuff, so let's not waste time in how the beast looks, if it is stealthy or not or how it handles itself. What is important is that:

    1. it was brought down on iranian airspace.

    2. it is certainly the sentinel.

    3. US has officially accepted that it was their big bird.

    i dont see one good answer on why the beast came down except for a dozen all-possible possibilities you have narrated, making it all sound like a conspiracy theory now.

    lets jus stick to the facts. may be a simple answer to your suspicion could be that sentinel has been flying around for years now and it was already considered a prized possession, if brought down as such, by russian and china both, close allies of iran. this will end up anyway in their hands, but there is every possibility that thats how it was brought down. oh and by the way, US is not the only kid who knows hacking and jamming. come out of this hysteria. take care.

  7. In CNN they interviewed a predator operator and he said that a drone can be hacked with sophisticated tech. And don't forget China always vetoes UN sanctions against Iran, it might be the chinese who hacked the drone and brought it down in Iran. Very soon you are going to have Yuin Yang -1 flying over New Delhi and collecting vital information and you won't even know.

  8. The self destruct and return to base modes obviously did not work.
    That vividly implies the drone controls were someway blocked.
    That simply does not convert into taking over the controls of the drone.
    It also has self landing mode for emergencies, which probably got activated.

  9. Nothing is invisible and invincible. Iran is a great nation and people from Iran are capable, smart, intelligent and capable. If they have downed this bird then kudos to them. Every nation has the right to protect its sovereignty.

  10. Doesn't the obvious absence of a vertical stabiliser point to an attempt at stealth, given that doing so reduces RCS to a great degree? Not having one necessitates the requirement of quite a bit of processing power to maintain stability in flight, so it doesn't really make sense to not have a vertical stabiliser if the aircraft wasn't stealthy to begin with.
    Also, I always imagined the jagged-edges to be a feature of engine nozzles, rather than control surfaces, but I may be wrong there.

  11. I have a rather far-fetched theory. Pilots have been known to tip wings to destabilise aircraft. Is this a possibility? Maybe something of this fashion over the desert could have done it?

  12. Shiv

    A personal request. Please do an article on why so many of our neighbours are supporting Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. Every visiting general talks the same


  13. @ Anonymous at 2.27 pm: I think the purpose of the article was to logically discard the "conspiracy theories" so as to arrive as the most probable cause, and kudos to Aditya for having done that superbly. He has both provided a plausible answer AND what you call "techy stuff", which you mistakenly assume that everyone who visits this blog would be aware of.

  14. I agree with sohamn. It could have been a special operation from either of the countries knowing the beast will be visiting often to Iran. Iran gets propagada and sp operator gets the tech. it couldnt have crashed as there are no marks. a parachute recovery is possible but i wonder the wisdom of sending the prized possession with a cushion for enemy. the lack of hype from US also might indicate it might have been a decoy to fool the nations in search of the stealth tech. somehow it doesnt look like a natural loss of UAV, the US is so good with reliable technology especially in highend.

  15. Serrated edges by itself is not a guarantee for stealth design. Flying wing design itself has low observability characteristics as there are no vertical stabilizer tail surfaces in the flying wing design which accounts for most of the signature. The second important thing is the material which you have not talked about. Looking at the UAV, the outer surfaces seems to all composite that should reduce its signature further. The pictures also hide whatever was at the bottom of the UAV. I am guessing that this would be important not only because of the landing gear arrangement but also because bottom surfaces are critical to making or breaking of the stealth characteristics.

  16. IMHO the "captured" drone is a fake. Probably just a mock up. To my eyes it does not look exactly as earlier photos of the beast of kandahar / RQ-170. If it were the real deal it would most likely have been precision striked on the ground, if "landed" in Iran, there is no way the americans would have left it in one piece in ahmedinejads hands…

  17. Just a couple of points regarding the post

    1) Today's stealth aircraft don't really have to use the stealth features (like serrated edges etc.) to get similar results. The focus today is on more 'affordable' stealth. Additionally, a lot of the features we've come to identify with stealth aircraft (facets etc.) are now frequently moved under the skin. Take a look at how thick the wing is. It'd be relatively simple to accommodate sharp serrated bodies inside it.
    Other features that point to this UAV's RCS being optimized are the twin bumps above the fuselage, which would be used for mission avionics (the center being occupied by the engine). Moving the avionics systems above the wings allows the bottom of the aircraft to be as flat as possible reducing the RCS as seen from below (at a cost of increased RCS from above).

    2) Jamming …
    It's not necessary to jam the GPS or datalink to down a UAV. The UAV operator does not 'fly' it in the traditional sense, but instead commands it to go to a specific waypoint. THe actual flying to that location is handled by the UAV itself. One possibility that I haven't seen being raised is that of EM interference with the aircrafts FCS. While military avionics are hardened to prevent such occurences, they've been known to happen. In the 80s or early 90s a pair of German Tornado IDSs crashed when they flew too close to a FM tower that was transmitting at high power.
    While the example mentioned above describes an accidental 'downing' of an aircraft, such shoot-downs can also be conducted at will using EMP devices. EMP bombs are nothing new and have been researched by virtually every nation. An EMP device also has the benefit of not requiring an exact vector to the target
    I honestly don't believe that en EMP device was actually used to shoot down the RQ-170. I just want to put it out here on the etherwebs as one (rather unlikely) possibility.

  18. Thanks for the feedback, folks, it's much appreciated!

    Anonymous @ 10:25: If I were Iran I'd have surrounded its hangar by a Faraday cage! πŸ™‚

    Anonymous @ 2:27:

    If you'd read the last two/three paras again, you'd have noticed that my conclusion is loss of propulsion. The US may not be the country that knows how to jam/hack – however a good flight control system is designed so that hacking or jamming does not stop the mission from being executed.

    Adarsh Bhat: Lack of a vertical stabiliser can lead to low-observability, yes; but the reason for removing the fin need not be just stealth. Blended-wing bodies do not need the stabiliser as much.

    As for the tipping-wing theory, it would result in either a crash or an automated stabilisation (given that it was operating at 30,000 feet)

    RAJ47: There is no evidence of "self-destruct" capabilities, and such features are generally a *bad* idea – makes maintenance trickier. Very few vehicles have self-destruct mechanisms – not even ICBMs.

    Anonymous @ 10:38: Agreed about the serrated edges, but my point is that if they had to design a stealthy UAV, they would have not left straight edges on the control surfaces or body panels.

    To everyone that says this may be a fake, it is possible but IMO less likely now that the US has admitted losing a drone.

  19. Vivek: Sorry I missed your post, it appeared after I'd replied to everyone else.

    1) Agree, on all counts.

    2) You're right, that most UAVs are autonomous, they aren't actively flown.

    I'll disagree about the EMP, as today's military aircraft are built with a lot of protection against any EMP. The Tornado crash that you mention turned out to be for different reasons (loss of control due to an aggressive manoeuvre).

    EMP bombs, if existed, would also require a vector to the target. The inverse-square law ensures that the electromagnetic effects fade very quickly. Any device powerful enough to not need vectoring would be sensed across countries and in space instantly.

    Still, thanks for the feedback πŸ™‚

  20. What happened to all the landing gears??..All of them literally look gone and everything else looks intact!!. Hehe..hard to imagine all the impact taken by the landing gears!!.

    -Sudheendra S

  21. Well I don't agree with the Author on stealth. What makes an aircraft stealth? The idea is simple, the radar should not receive the waves it throws. An absorbing material, low frontal, side cross section, smooth surfaces should do the trick. It does for the B2. The mesh on the front is not to foreign obj, its to make sure that the radar waves which enter don't reflect back too easily off the engine.

    And as for loss of engine. If I was at the hands of that aircraft and I lost engine or fuel, I would dive the aircraft and blow it up. Plain and simple. What might have gone wrong is that the controllers lost control of the aircraft. In case of loss of control the aircraft would have continued in the direction of flight.

    But I do agree with the author on the account that it could not have been hacked or something like that. It was just pure bad luck for the US

  22. As everybody knows US just get Iraqui insurgents notebooks with video feeds generate by US Predator UAVs.

    They used a wireless video stream comercial protocol to brodcast and it was easily cracked by a hacker know tool in internet.

    Iran is not a bunch off insurgents, is a military regional power, with a high degree of tech capability and have the resources of a oil exporter country…

    Is also Known that Russia recently sold to Iran some heavy station hardware that could be responsible to the stunt (not the chinese) with the Electronics Intelligence (ELINT) capability based on a truck called IRTR 1L222.

    Another thing the american military and itΒ΄s industry is know by the use of certain claims of tech superiory not 100% true. Like the use of a comercial stream video protocol on Predator UAVs, some budgets constrains AND some capitalist greed may tend to take some short cuts (to make the job done) and the intend or claimed capabilitys is not quite the same "as intended" in the final product or in the 'early versions" of a weapon system.

    Is quite the case with the "up to date" american planes on the MMRCA and the "inquestionable" superiority of the upcoming (but very delayed) F-35…

    Finaly is time to remenber that the MASSIVE use of US UAVs in the last 6 years in Iraqui and Paquistan, if the iranian eletronic warfare offficers had a MINNIMUM competence, the Iranian military is in ther hands of the most extensive library of recorded US UAVs commands in the world.

    With a powerful local jammer/transmiter a good interception library and some degree of weakness of the system itshelf could be the answer here.

    P.S. With eletronic interception inside it's own country, is improbable that IRAN could intercep the comand signal of relese down landing gears. If the hijack Iranian version is TRUE the landing is almost certain by balley…

    IF I was from american inteligence I will use Tomahawk missile to destroy the Sentinel on the ground after to search with photos in Iranian social sites and Google Earth to indentify a polysport metalic structure with the lateral size and high and the geometric lateral patern showed in the iranian footage…
    If they are smart enough better move it from there…

  23. WE have fairly decent relations with Iran. Can't our Muslim-appeasing UPA govt persuade them to share its technology with us so that we can develop AURA UAV by ourselves and don't have to beg the Russians 10 years later?

  24. Thank you Iran, for giving the world a first hand close up look of the Sentinel.

    Pakistanis (as usual & expected) are now scratching their heads!

  25. I think the edges are not called 'serrated'. Correct term is 'dog-toothed'.
    My 2 cents. Otherwise, a good deduction.

  26. The drone was hacked by hacking the computer network of Creech AFB, Arizona, where the americans remote control the drones. There was no need to hack the satellite datalink.

  27. Gilberto, Anon @ 2:29 pm,

    Not that hacking is not a possibility, but let me ask you this: if the Iranians and/or Chinese had hacked into a highly secure USAF system, would they have used it to do something as trivial as hijack and capture a UAV?

    No, had they really penetrated the USAF network, they would have used it to extract crucial intelligence and information to give them a strategic advantage in the game being played out in West Asia. In comparison, by simply hijacking a UAV, they would have only disclosed their hand, and prompted the Americans to close the breach and take steps to improve the security of their networks.

  28. Mihr,

    In this case of the hijack of the sentinel drone is not required that the Iranians hijack an real access inside the US system.

    My point is that the actual communication protocol used with the sentinel drone MAY BE not that strong and encrypted than American military and Lockheed Martin claim to the world of believers of American tech supremacy.

    What the Iranians may have pull off, with the Russian hardware (with or without the help of their techs engineers), is to create a electronic jamming bubble to prevent the real but weaker American signal to reach the drone and make it's systems believe they are in touch with their US control by a powerful local Iranian mimic signal. Create by a careful, long and extensive recorded library capture by passive monitoring of US UAV transmissions over years in the region.

    Some weakness Americans will NEVER admit openly.

    For me, the only way the Americans could prove to the world that the catch of their drone was not made by an active action by Iranian electronic warfare military is to continue to operate their drones over Iran…

    So far the don't do it, because in fact they even know for sure what happened…

    So far the western media don't dare to ask that kind of question or put information about it in the news after the incident.

    But to Know the truth, the US military must put to the risk ANOTHER drone… πŸ™‚

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