Not quite an airplane, a helicopter or even a drone, the unmanned Iranian aerial vehicle that ambled into Israeli air space Saturday, Oct. 6 was one of oddest flying objects seen in international skies.
Closest to a two-ton stealth helicopter, it structurally resembled a large Russian assault helicopter of the Mi-24, Mi-25 and Mi-35 series. However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards aerospace engineers who assembled it tried to disguise its Russian origin by stenciling English words (with spelling mistakes) on some of its parts, suggesting it was American.
And indeed, shortly after it was shot down by Israeli Air Force F16 jets that day, a Lebanese former general called Hisham Jaber came forward to tell reporters in Beirut, “The drone must have come from an American aircraft carrier or from US air force and military bases in Saudi Arabia. That’s the only possibility so far until we know after investigation.”
No one was surprised to find Iran’s surrogate, Hizballah talking through the former general’s mouth.
Israeli air force, intelligence and cyber warfare experts dubbed it the “Mongrel of Tehran” for reasons first disclosed hereunder by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and military sources.
The strange craft was captured whole, just like the secret US RQ-170 Sentinel, the CIA’s most sensitive surveillance platform, which Iran seized ten months ago on Dec. 13, 2011.
Israeli experts discovered in their initial examination that some of its parts originated in the US RQ-170, were replicated from them or redesigned from the originals by Iranian, Chinese and Russian engineers.
(See the next article on their combined effort to reverse-engineer the RQ-170.)
The Beast of Kandahar eviscerated
The CIA nicknamed the RQ-170 Sentinel the “Beast of Kandahar.”
High-ranking American intelligence, electronic and cyber engineers confirmed that the Sentinel’s parts had been pirated or copied for use in the Iranian UAV.
The US experts flew into Israel by special flight when they learned of its capture after one of Israel’s biggest military intelligence fiasco in six years. On July 14, 2006, Iranian missiles fired by Hizballah during the Second Lebanon War crippled the Israel Navy’s Hanit missile ship thanks to the Iranian electronic engineers manning the Lebanese coastal radar, who shut down the ship’s highly advanced air defense system.
This time, Israeli defenses failed on five counts, our sources disclose:
1. When the Iranian UAV took off on Saturday morning (October 6) from northern Lebanon and headed west toward Cyprus, it was not detected by any of the myriad intelligence and air force watchers monitoring the skies over the southeastern Turkish-Syrian border, Lebanon and Israel.
Its flight path was set by a team of crack Iranian drone, intelligence and cyber war experts. From an electronic command trailer in eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, they navigated the drone through a satellite link rented from a European commercial company which had no notion of its purpose by Europe-based Shiite Arab businessmen.
The Iranian UAV flew over coastal Israel undetected
2. Halfway between Lebanon and Cyprus the Iranian aircraft executed a sharp turn from west to east and headed straight for the big northern Israeli port of Haifa Bay.
Contrary to the Israel military spokesman’s claim that the IDF latched immediately onto the Iranian craft’s arrival and its flight path was tracked closely by air force jets, in actual fact, the UAV was still undiscovered when it turned south and flew down Israel’s coastline over its main power stations in Hadera and Ashkelon and its biggest naval bases at Haifa and Ashdod.
The fake helicopter was only spotted when it approached the Gaza Strip and turned east over land. Then, too, Israeli air defense radar was not alerted. The alarm was first sounded by Israeli ships cruising opposite the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip enclave to block the smuggling of Iranian arms into the Palestinian enclave.
It was only at that moment, that the Israeli military command first grasped that the trespasser was not just a slow, clumsy, helicopter-type aircraft in the wrong place, but an unmanned drone electronically-navigated by an unknown remote hand via satellite.
3. Israel has never been attacked by a satellite-guided aerial vehicle. This intrusion suddenly laid bare all the holes in its air and cyber defenses.
Decisions were shunted up the chain to the prime minister
Most tellingly, no one was ready to order those systems into instantaneous action against the intruder. Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel asked IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz for instructions; he turned to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who passed the decision on to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who finally decided to try to bring down the aircraft intact by means of cyber attack.
Intelligence officers had meanwhile tracked down the European satellite used by the Iranian team in Lebanon to guide the UAV. But the information was not much use at that juncture because they were helpless to disarm the satellite or reach the Bekaa Valley command center.
4. Before it was downed, the Iranian drone had meanwhile covered the Negev city of Beersheba (pop: a quarter-million), key Israeli air and military bases and the Dimona nuclear reactor, whose warning systems did not respond. It then turned north towards central Israel, apparently heading for Jerusalem.
But as it came over Beersheba, Israel cyber units engaged the UAV’s Iranian operators in a duel. Control of the vehicle swung back and forth for some minutes. Film shot by the Israeli fighter jets escorting the Iranian vehicle showed it going into a tail spin ever few minutes and then recovering equilibrium, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose.
5. According to the official Israeli military spokesman, F-16 fighter jets were eventually ordered to shoot the UAV down with missiles. The IDF then released a tape showing a fireball exploding and plunging to the ground. Four days after the event, on Wednesday, Oct. 10, military sources reported that two missiles were fired at the target and one hit home.
The captured UAV revealed Iran’s mastery of air stealth technology
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources tell a different story:
The Iranian helicopter was neither brought down by a missile, nor did it end its life as a fireball.
This is what happened: When the Israelis found they were losing the cyber battle and electronic measures were not bringing the Iranian helicopter under control, they turned to a more rough-and-ready means.
Taking advantage of the helicopter’s slow and clumsy motions, they sent up nimble, fast-moving combat helicopters to draw a thick steel cable underneath the trespasser. The helicopters then rose up with the cable stretched between them and trapped the UAV before bringing it down to earth in the desolate Yatir Forest in the southern Hebron hills.
The Tehran Mongrel was thus finally brought down intact with only slight damage.
The abundant electronic and surveillance equipment cramming its interior, most of it made in Russia, was thus available for the experts to examine in situ. It brought home to Israeli and US electronic intelligence specialists the discovery that Iran is in possession of stealth aircraft able to confound their radar systems and contend with their cyber war defenses.
What did Iran gain by the drone exercise?
But what gives them sleepless nights most of all is the suspicion that Tehran sent the unwieldy cross-breed unmanned helicopter over Israel for its first real-combat conditions test to find out how far its own engineers aided by Chinese and Russian experts have gone toward integrating and applying the secrets of the captured American RQ-170.
But there is also another possibility: Iran may have practiced an exercise in deceit in order to mislead the US and Israel, before they go on the offensive against its nuclear sites, into believing that the clumsy helicopter-like vehicle represented the sum total of Tehran’s technological progress, whereas in fact it is far more advanced along that road.
Otherwise it’s hard to understand why the Iranians would sacrifice their first stealth vehicle for a high-risk venture that Israel might well have treated as an act of belligerence.