Capturing the spy drone foils US war rhetoric on Iran

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Safar 07, 1433 2012-01-01

Main Stories

by Ahmet Aslan (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 11, Safar, 1433)

One of the most striking events in post-Revolutionary Iranian history unfolded in early December 2011 when Iranian state TV showed a captured RQ-170 Sentinel, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the US for spying. It is one of the most sophisticated planes in the US arsenal and had been kept largely hidden from public eye in order to not risk its top secret spy missions.

One of the most striking events in post-Revolutionary Iranian history unfolded in early December 2011 when Iranian state TV showed a captured RQ-170 Sentinel, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the US for spying. It is one of the most sophisticated planes in the US arsenal and had been kept largely hidden from public eye in order to not risk its top secret spy missions. Until now, only a grainy photo taken at Qandahar airbase in 2009 was seen. The photo created a myth around the Sentinel due to its bizarre shape and speculation about its myriad capabilities were widely circulated to project it as something awesome hence its nickname, the “Beast of Kandahar”.

That is why the world was shocked — the Americans even more so as victims of their own propaganda — when they saw images of the very “beast”, tamed and put on display by its new masters in Iran. The display scenery was carefully prepared by the Revolutionary Guards to mark the significance of the occasion and to gain the upperhand in the on-going cold war with the US. A banner hoisted next to the Sentinel depicted a memorable quote in Farsi from the late Imam Khomeini: “The US cannot do a damn thing.” The Imam had made the statement in the face of US threats of a military attack during occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran by revolutionary students. The embassy was little more than a den of spies, as the Iranians quickly dubbed it, from which were captured thousands of secret documents exposing the Americans’ illegal activities and their links with agents in Iran. The Imam’s memorable statement was later turned into a slogan of the Islamic Revolution and repeated on many occasions.

However, words do not have much effect without action and perhaps that is why the quote had never had so much impact until it was proclaimed on a banner next to the captured US spy plane. Capture of the Sentinel in almost perfect condition caused huge embarrassment, not to mention problems, for the US. Not surprisingly, Washington attempted to play down the significance of the capture of its top of the line spy plane by Iran. Initially, US officials only admitted they had lost an unmanned drone but insisted it was over Afghanistan. They denied it was brought down by the Iranians stating instead “malfunction” had caused its loss. In contrast to the US story, Iranian officials announced they had captured the plane on December 4, some 140 miles inside Iranian territory from the Afghan border.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi finally announced Iran’s technological victory over the US: “Regardless of whether the US believes it or not, the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran brought down the aircraft largely intact without assistance from any foreign country.” This was perhaps the biggest single blow that directly smashed US war propaganda that has been going on since its occupation of Iraq in 2003. Hitherto, Iran had had only moderate successes against covert US operations to destabilize the Islamic Republic. These included capturing a major CIA operative, Abdolmalek Rigi who had launched deadly attacks against Revolutionary Guards for several years; breaking US spy rings and capturing a number of CIA operatives inside the country both last May as well as more recently when Iranian television on December 18 showed Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the CIA spy. Hekmati is of Iranian origin and was trained for nearly a decade by the CIA to penetrate Iran. He came under the Iranian intelligence radar when he was sent to the notorious Bagram Airbase in Afghan-istan from where he was sent into Iran. The US government had the gall to ask for his return. Hekmati’s capture dovetailed that of the drone spy plane.

According an article in the Christian Science Monitor quoting from a European intelligence source, Iran shocked Western intelligence agencies, sometime in last two years when it managed to “blind” a CIA spy satellite by “aiming a laser burst quite accurately.” But none of the previous operations, impressive as they were, matched the significance of the capture of the RQ-170 spy plane in near perfect condition. It was a game changer and has made great impact in several aspects. Rhetoric of War

While the last active duty US troops left Iraq on December 15, a full two weeks before the stipulated deadline of December 31, 2011, many commentators still cannot fathom why the US invaded Iraq in March 2003. There was no imminent threat to US interests from a badly weakened Saddam regime; it was widely known that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction, duly confirmed by UN Weapons Inspectors, yet the US invaded the country. The US ended up spending nearly one trillion dollars directly on the eight-year war and suffered 4,500 war dead (the actual cost when payments to injured soldiers and other related items are included, it climbs to nearly $4 trillion). Indeed it also caused irreparable damage to US reputation in the world due to the murder of more than 1.5 million Iraqis and the torture inflicted on many in Abu Ghraib Prison.

Yet the US did not benefit from lucrative contracts to exploit the vast oil resources of Iraq, as was anticipated prior to the invasion. The occupation of Afghanistan should also be taken into account. It has also cost the US dearly, in terms of manpower and economic loss. It was not initially clear why the US had embarked on such a disastrous course but subsequent events have shown that the US had its eyes on the bigger prize: Iran, the sole obstacle to US-Israeli domination of the Muslim East. During the US’s 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, which is ongoing, an unprecedented political, military and intelligence effort was launched to destabilize Iran and pave the way for regime change through supporting their agents inside Iran. This was augmented by threats of air strikes on the Islamic Republic’s power sources as well as nuclear installation. The US used every opportunity to try and weaken Iran.

However, thanks to the support of the Iranian masses, robust deterrence of the armed forces and the handy work of Iranian intelligence, all such US attempts have failed. Realizing that regime change is not an option in Iran anymore, Washington is now going for the second best option: containment of Iran’s influence in the region. The US has shifted its war policy to increasing economic and political isolation of Iran, which would be reinforced through heightened rhetoric of war to exert psychological pressure on Iran. According to this thinking an anxious Iran will be forced to focus on its own security unable to exert influence in the face of regional developments, especially during the post-US occupation era.

Capturing the “beast” turns the tables

The drone is a perfect tool for spying on countries that have a credible air defence system. The drone uses stealth technology to evade radar detection, can fly at extremely high altitudes and can stay in the air for prolonged periods of time to gather intelligence. The Sentinel has multiple state of the art sensors; it can intercept communications in the area as well take air samples to keep a close eye on Iran’s nuclear program. More importantly it has a psychological effect on the targeted countries since the aircraft can violate their airspace at will and capture images of their most heavily guarded secret installations without facing any resistance.

But the Revolutionary Guards have been preparing themselves for capturing the “beast”. They mastered their knowledge of the drone collected from previously downed US drones, and bought some equipment from the Russians. Moscow had delivered the Avtobaza ground-based electronic intelligence and jamming system to Iran three months ago. It is designed to jam side-looking and fire control radars on aircraft and manipulate the guidance and control systems of incoming enemy missiles. Combining their knowledge, skills and creativity with Russian equipment they set up an ambush to catch the prize.

When the Sentinel trespassed into Iranian air space, Iranian specialists first jammed the aircraft communications and forced it to switch to autopilot. On autopilot, the Sentinel is programmed to follow GPS signals to navigate to its home base. It is well known by the Pentagon that the GPS navigations were the weakest point of the UAVs as they are prone to manipulation. Iranians were also aware of this and exploited the simple weakness without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications from the US control centre. Once the plane was on autopilot, the Iranian experts sent their signals from the ground and manipulated the drone’s GPS coordinates to make it land at a nearby Iranian airbase that has similar coordinates to the drone’s home airbase in Afghanistan. This way the drone’s computer assumed it was actually landing at its home base in Afghanistan. This is why the self-destruct mechanism of the drone did not work.

The Russians provided the Avtobaza system to Saddam Husain before the US invasion but they could not make good use of it. Even the Russians themselves could not use the system effectively during the war with Georgia in 2008 as they were helpless against Israeli-supplied Georgian drones and suffered casualties due to information provided by these drones. With their achievement, the Iranian electronic warfare units have gained great respect in the world. But more importantly, Iran has foiled the US war rhetoric by showing that Iranian airspace is not a park for US or Israeli planes. They have advanced technology to detect stealth aircraft, and capability to disable them through jamming.

The US air warfare doctrine has been built upon using satellite guided missiles for attacking enemy targets. By bringing down the drone, which had a more sophisticated satellite navigation system, the Iranians have shown they have the capability to control advanced US missiles in midair and perhaps re-direct them against US targets. Further, once Iranian specialists decipher the drone’s codes they will be able read the data stored in its computer on possible targets marked out by the US. Hence they will know the mind of the enemy. Marking out these targets was a result of a long and arduous process for the CIA; the Iranians can either replace the position of these targets now or reinforce the defence around these areas. This of course would make a US airstrike too risky if not impossible.

By capturing the drone Iran has turned the tables in its psychological war with the US. The US might still continue its belligerent war mongering but everyone and most importantly the Iranians know that US threats of war are a lot of hot air.

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