Posts Tagged Iran

Is Iranian cloning the real reason for Watchkeeper drone delays?

The Watchkeeper drone programme will soon be three years late. Watchkeeper was originally intended to provide surveillance services for UK troops in Afghanistan and advanced ‘ISTAR’ for UK forces into the future. But despite Watchkeeper being based on a highly successful lethal Israeli drone (Hermes 450), Watchkeeper has apparently failed to produce any useful services after many years of development.

The only reason provided for the delays seems somewhat implausible. The UK Military Aviation Authority is conducting certification trials for civilian airspace, and failure to meet standards has been cited as the reason for Watchkeeper delays. But Watchkeeper is based on a Israeli prototype that works all too well in the field, and most of the projected role for Watchkeeper is in remote areas, like Afghanistan. While it may very well be difficult to certify Watchkeeper to fly in civilian airspace, this would be a very small part of Watchkeeper’s role.

So is there another reason for Watchkeeper delays?

In 2011 Iran apparently captured several American and Israeli drones which had penetrated Iranian airspace on covert missions. This demonstrated how the control mechanisms of these drones may been compromised, sharply curtailing the value of these drones for certain purposes. Is it possible that the failure to introduce Watchkeeper on schedule is a result of the need for the control mechanisms on the drone to be reengineered to be secure from takeover or tampering?

To me this seems more plausible than claims relating to civilian air certification.

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Iran copied Hermes 450 drone

At the end of 2012 video appeared that purported to show Iranian success in copying the Israeli drone Hermes 450. The Iranian Hermes look-alike is called the Shahed 129. The Shahed looks like the Hermes 450 and flies like it. (A post in this newsgroup shows some of the differences between various Hermes 450 clones and versions. By the photos the Iranian Shahed 129 is cloned from Hermes 450, not Watchkeeper).

In 2011 Iran claimed to have captured several US and Israeli drones along its eastern borders, (perhaps flying covert missions from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Azerbaijan). In 2013 Israel grounded its Hermes 450 drones being used in Azerbaijan, based on fears that they would be seized by the Iranians. (Does this suggest that Iran had already captured Israeli 450 drones flown from Azerbaijan?). It was also claimed that Iranian spies captured in Azerbaijan were trying to capture a Hermes 450 from the fleet sold to Azerbaijan by Israel.

An Israeli source was skeptical, claiming that only the outer appearance of the Hermes 450 had been copied. However commentators seemed concerned that other key technology might have been ‘reverse engineered’, giving Iran access to the capabilities that have led Israel to success in attacking and repressing occupied Palestine, (the West Bank and Gaza).

If Iran has copied the Hermes 450 drone, it has also copied many of the attributes of the UK Watchkeeper drone. Iran claims that it has armed the Shahed 129 with Sadid-1 missiles.

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Drones Are Unreliable

The loss of a super secret US spy drone recently in Iran has drawn attention to the unreliability of drones. The Drones Crash Database has catalogued a large number of known drone crashes, and there must have been many more crashes and ‘loss of control events’ which are unreported in conflict zones like Afghanistan.

Anna Mulrine, of the Christian Science Monitor, reported recently in Alaska Dispatch.com, on the problem of unreliable drones.

One of the problems of drones is the long and complicated communication networks needed to control drones remotely, and their vulnerability to failure and disruption. Another problem is the two second delay that occurs in electronic signals from drone operators in the US to drone being used in Central Asia or the Middle East, and back again. (Much like the scene in a digital camera that changes after the shutter is pressed but before the picture is taken a drone operator is always two seconds behind what is happening where the drone is).

Blogger Jeffery Carr, has reported on studies by the US government that detail the reliability of drones. Drones are particularly vulnerable to disruption in satellite communications, and may be vulnerable to cyber attacks, which is the technique that Iran claims to have used to capture the American MQ-170 drone earlier this month.

David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen, re-reporting information published in the Christian Science Monitor describes an Iranian scientist who claims that Iran reprogrammes GPS coordinate and jams satellite communications to trick American drones into landing.

Interestingly, there have been no new drone strikes in Pakistan in the past month, though this is likely due more to the fallout of from the disintegrating relations with Pakistan than concerns over drones being captured.

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Drone crash sheds light on covert Afghanistan mission

The recent crash of a top secret American RQ-170 stealth drone in Iran raises  several issues.

Last week the Iranian government claimed it had shot down an American spy drone deep within Iranian territory, using ‘electronic’ means. American military disinformation operatives stated that the drone actually came down along the Iran Afghanistan frontier, while flying missions in Afghanistan.

But a story in Atlanticwire confirms that the drone actually came down deep in Iranian territory, (140 miles from the frontier) and that the autonomously piloted aircraft likely crashed due to ‘catastrophic malfunctions’ of its control system.

The Atlantic points out that the US government has long flown drone surveillance flights over Iranian territory. (Last week this blog discussed the role of drone flight over frontiers as a destabilising factor). Flying at 50,000 feet, with stealth technology, it is believed RQ-170 is beyond Iran’s to shoot down or perhaps even detect. Stories in late 2009 noted that because the Taliban lack the technology to shoot down even conventional drones, the only reason to deploy the RQ170 in Afghanistan must be to fly them over neighbouring countries, (of which Iran would be the most obvious target-ed).

The long history of American drone flights over bases in Afghanistan supports the widespread contention that the NATO occupation of Afghanistan is as much to do with its strategic location adjacent to American arch-enemy Iran, as any other factor. Reluctance of the US to abandon the failed Afghanistan occupation has to be viewed in light of their desire to maintain a military presence on that border with Iran.

Another issue that has come up is the loss of secret technology that protects American ‘stealth’ aircraft. The stealth technology that protects the RQ-170 appears to be the same or similiar technology used in the new F-35 fighter jets that the US is building. The Iranian capture of a plane using this technology probably guarantees that US stealth secrets will be spread widely. This would severely degrade the value of the stealth version of the beleagured F-35.

The ‘catastrophic malfunction’ of the drone’s control system also gives pause. This is the most sophisticated drone in the American fleet, used in sensitive incursions in the sovereign territory of other countries. That the absolutely best technology available to the US military can fail at crucial times severely undermines the credibility of drone advocates that claim that drones can be operated safely over civilian airspace. Widespread crashes by drones fuel fears of the safety of the entire genre of unpiloted aircraft.

(late addition):

This extensive article in the New York times gives extensive analysis of the implications of the crash.

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Drones Often Violate Airspace

Drones give nations impunity to overfly other nations air space.

Surprisingly, many states have been overflying their neighbour’s territory with some level of impunity. Israel has overflown Lebanon, and left its drone there for many hours, before departing. Hizbollah has flown drones many times over northern Israel, to the embarrassment of the Israeli military. In 2006 the Israelis shot down at least two Hezbollah drones.

Georgia has overflown South Ossetia, which it claims, but which is controlled  by Russia. Here is a video of a Russian MIG shooting down a Georgian UAV, apparently over South Ossetia in 2008.

The US regularly overflies Pakistan with drones, and indeed launches deadly attacks from them. At least two US drones have been shot down recently over North Waziristan.

In 2009 the US shot down its own out of control Predator drone before it entered Tajikistan.

Iran has overflown Iraq, and had at least one drone shot down by US forces. US forces claimed the trespass was intentional, Iranian and Iraqi officials claimed it was an accident.

Why are there so many violations of airspace, using drones? Are they more likely to be used than manned aircraft? Clearly many drones are surrepticious, difficult to detect, and difficult to shoot down because of their size, especially without collateral damage on the ground. Because most drones are clearly for surveillance, the country sending the drone may feel they can get away with incursions even if detected, because they are a ‘minor’ threat.

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A Larger Motive? Why Did Israel risk so much for Georgia?

On the face of it, it is puzzling that the Israeli Defense Ministry would go so far out on a limb as to heavily arm a tiny country with little value as an ally for Israeli, while risking provoking Russia, a country that could do it immense harm. Was it the chance for big money in arms sales? Was it the undue influence in the Defense Ministry by people either with Georgian connections, or the opportunity to profit?

It has also been suggested that in return for Israeli assistance, that Georgia might have been willing to provide airbases useful to Israel should it decide to attack Iran. Since Georgia is near Iran, with only western friendly Armenia intervening, there would be little problem of diplomatic problems being caused by overflights.

However during the conflict between Russian and Georgia, these airfields were severely damaged, along with infrastructure. As well, Israeli drones and their communication and control equipment were captured. The act which precipitated the Russian move was Georgian drones, (supplied by an Israeli company and operated by Israelis) which overflew Russian controlled territory. But these drones also overflew Iranian territory.

Most of the Israeli military and intelligence staff working in Georgia were reservists working for Global CST, a company owned by former IDF Brigadier General Israel Ziv, and Defense Shield,  owned by former IDF Brigadier General Gal Hirsch. Why were such high ranking former Israeli military staff working in Georgia? Was it just for the money? Or were they part of a larger Israeli enterprise to secure Georgian facilities for an attack on Iran? Quite likely the Russians believed that the presence of these individuals signalled the covert intentions of Israel and the US. (Much of this information comes from an article by Brian Haring, 17 August, 2008, although some of the interpretations are mine).

The same article suggest that an irate CIA employee, complaining of excessive Israeli influence in the agency, passed on information relating to the presence of Israeli operatives in Georgia to the Russians, and seems to imply that this encouraged the Russians to destroy Georgian facilities, thereby heading off a strike on Iran by Israel.

It is also clear that Georgian and Israeli interests are linked because Israel gets a large amount of oil from Azerbajan, via a pipeline through Georgia. Israel would like to have the opportunity to acquire more oil and reexport to regions beyond. (reference)

More info, Time Magazine article,

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