The Complex

Is this video from the RQ-170 stealth drone captured by Iran?

Late last week, Iran released photos and videos of a very fake-looking stealth fighter jet. 

This week, Tehran may have done a little bit better. This video, posted to YouTube on Wednesday, shows what is claimed to be camera footage taken from the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone that Iran claims to have captured in 2011.

When someone first sent me this video I was very skeptical. Then I took a closer look and became a lot less so. Let's go through it carefully.

First, notice the very opening shots. You can see what appears to be the nose landing gear drop. It seems to drop toward the side of plane, just like the RQ-170's nose gear appears to do based on photos taken of the jet taxiing around Kandahar air base in Afghanistan. Just as interesting is the fact that the camera on this aircraft is positioned behind a rather complex nose landing gear assembly -- a layout that matches grainy Web images of the Sentinel that show what looks like a compartment that could contain a camera positioned on the bottom of the airplane, just behind the front landing gear.

This unusual layout isn't shared by the U.S.'s most common attack drones; the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Unlike what we've seen of the RQ-170, both of those planes have sensor balls (yes, they're really called that) capable of rotating 360 degrees that hang just in front of their (rather primitive) nose landing gear.

After a few flying shots, you see footage taking as the aircraft taxis at what looks an awful lot like an American air base, right down to C-130s parked on the ramp. In fact, at about 48  seconds in, you can see what looks like an MQ-9 Reaper drone (or possibly two) parked in an enclosed ramp -- a drone pen if you will -- complete with a walled perimeter and those tent hangars that are seen at expeditionary drone bases around the world.

At 56-57 seconds, you see the camera quickly swivel to the right before bumping up against what appears to be the limits of its pan. As noted above, most drone sensor balls would be able to rotate 360 degrees, unless they were housed in a forward-looking compartment designed to maintain the aircraft's stealthy shape. (It could also be the forward edge of the rear landing gear doors, as seen in photos of the Sentinel taxiing.)

The camera then swivels back to the nose gear as the plane taxis forward into the drone pen. The fact that this aircraft is taxiing into a drone pen with U.S. drones nearby supports the notion that this is not just footage from a random aircraft with a sensor ball, but a U.S. drone. One thing that makes me a little bit skeptical is a mysterious strut that looks like it might attach to the landing gear (you can see this strut at the 25 second mark). Other than that, it looks like the Iranians may well have accessed data from the RQ-170 they got their hands on. Something U.S. officials said would be very, very difficult. For this reason, you'd think that Iranian officials would have made a bigger deal of the video.

If you've seen this footage before and can debunk it, sound off in the comments.

Update: As several people have pointed out, the very end of the video shows what might be footage of an actual strike mission. As far as we know, the RQ-170 carries no weapons. Here's commenter mrjefferson good take on this:

At 1:34 there is a one-second image of a ground explosion in what appears to be a residential area in a city or town. Some of the flight data is visible at the top, but much of it has been redacted. Drone experts may be able to verify the type of drone from this image alone.

It seems to me that the image of the explosion, possibly due to a weapon launched by another drone, would not have occurred in Iran and be captured on video by the RQ-170. Moreover, given the ostensible issue of assessing the Iranian nuclear effort, watching an explosion of a house doesn't make sense unless the video shows the assassination of someone associated with that program.

One far-fetched but possible explanation is that this is indeed RQ-170 video, but is instead taken from a mission over Afghanistan or Pakistan that has somehow gotten into the hands of the Iranians and is being falsely advertised as being from the RQ-170 in Iranian custody.

Ultimately the final image may not be part of the original video. Nonetheless it is enigmatic and merits further analysis.

Another commenter points out that most of this footage appears to be taken from a relatively low resolution camera that may be used to help the drone pilots control the craft while it's taking off, landing and taxiing. Keep in mind that drones are controlle on takeoff and landing by pilots at the base that the UAV is flying out of. Once airborne, control of the drone is handed off to operators who are sometimes located thousands of miles away. This second group of pilots fly the actual missions and collect information from the drones advanced sensors that's supposed to be broadcastover very well encrypted data links. This means that there's the possibility that the footage we're seeing was intercepted by Iranians from a U.S. drone's (possibly an RQ-170) while it was transmitting relatively useless  -- perishable -- unincrypted videos to its local controllers. If that's the case, it shows that Iran may not have accessed the truly sensitve data aboard the captured Sentinel.

 

National Security

Jim Langevin wants cyber talk in State of the Union address

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), co-chair of the Congressional Cyber Caucus, just released the text of a letter he sent President Barack Obama, urging him to discuss cyber security in his State of the Union address next week. Langevin doesn't specify what he wants the president to say other than "I hope that you will take the unique opportunity afforded by your State of the Union address to galvanize both Congress and the public to demand immediate action to secure out country's cyberspace."

Keep in mind that the White House is famously working an executive order that is believed to contain minimum IT security standards for banks, energy companies, transportation firms, and other so-called critical infrastructure providers in the wake of Congress's repeated failures to pass cyber security legislation last year.

This comes just after a New York Times report saying that the White House has decided it can conduct preemptive cyber strikes if it thinks such actions will stave off a major cyber attack that could seriously damage the United States. Last October, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Defense Department is prepared to conduct this type of aggressive defense.

Here's the text of Langevin's letter:

 

February 5, 2013

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

Congratulations on your inauguration for a second term. As your State of the Union address now approaches, I would like to thank you for your efforts to improve our nation's cybersecurity in your first term. From increasing the amount and quality of the data shared among federal agencies and the private sector to elucidating clear policy guidelines for trusted identities in cyberspace and cyberwarfare, your administration has truly made protecting American citizens and American interests a national priority.

Unfortunately, the scope of the challenge has only increased. The same American ingenuity that allows our businesses to be world-leaders in information technology also exposes us to a host of new threats. Defense Secretary Panetta, speaking to the Business Executives for National Security, described the current state of cyber-affairs as "a pre-9/11 moment." Attacks against our defense industrial base, our financial services infrastructure, our free press, and even our own government networks are a daily occurrence. While none have yet caused the destruction on the scope of 9/11, the potential for such a disaster is real, and it is growing.

Combating this threat is a pressing priority. As the co-founder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, I work to inform my colleagues of the inadequacy of existing legislation to secure the domain, and I have appreciated your administration's efforts to highlight the immediacy of our need. I hope that you will take the unique opportunity afforded by your State of the Union address to galvanize both Congress and the public to demand immediate action to secure our country's cyberspace. While I trust that you will use every existing avenue of executive power to improve our capabilities in this realm, our current laws simply do not reflect the amazing technological advances (and the accompanying challenges) that have been made since their enactment.

I was privileged to serve as the Co-chair of the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, which presented you with a series of recommendations when you first took office. Your actions in your first term have made it abundantly clear that you have embraced the need for a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, and I look forward to working with you to expand and implement this strategy throughout the coming session.

Sincerely,

Jim Langevin

Member of Congress

Getty Images