Iran's electronic trap for snaring the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, one of the world's most secret drone programs must be accounted a huge military and intelligence coup and a landmark in the long tussle over its nuclear program.
As this issue closed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reported growing suspicion in Washington that only the Russians were capable of breaking through the frequencies which linked CIA headquarters in Langley with the satellite communicating with the drone. It was the Sentinel's first mission inside Iran. The decision to bring it down by a cyber attack was not taken initially in Tehran but in a foreign capital.
Our Iranian sources disclosed that Tehran offered to allow Moscow and Beijing to study the captured drone in return for their commitment to provide Iran with the nuclear and military technologies it lacks as well as weapons systems withheld from Iran by Moscow.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence experts liken it to such major American and Israeli intelligence successes as the defection to the West in early 2007 of key Iranian nuclear program executive Brig. Gen. Ali-Reza Asgari, and the Stuxnet cyber invasion of June 2010 of the program's computer control systems.
Those feats slowed and partially shut down Iran's nuclear projects. Now, Iran's capture of a complete RQ-170 Sentinel will impair would-be Western plans for striking those projects.
(See more about this in the next item).
American intelligence experts tried to figure out this week how Iran came to announce Sunday, Dec. 4 that it had shot down the RQ-170 reconnaissance UAV with hardly any damage, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports.
They came up with five hypotheses which could be taken separately or in some form of combination:
1. Penetration: Iranian agents were able to penetrate the Kandahar base in southern Afghanistan where the CIA keeps its stealth drones for secret missions. They may have used local suppliers or service providers.
It would not be the first hostile penetration of a secret US installation in that country.
Pakistan settles scores by betrayal?
The most deadly incident for US forces in the 10-year Afghanistan war occurred on Aug. 6, when Taliban shot down a CH-47 helicopter, killing 30 American troops, seven Afghans and an interpreter in the eastern Wardak province. Among the fatalities were six members of the elite Navy SEALs Sixth Unit which three months previously had killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abottabad.
Taliban fighters were able to bring the Chinook down with a rocket-propelled grenade moments after takeoff because they had a tipoff from inside its base, US Combat Outpost Sayed Abad. The tip must have come from Iranian spies inside the Kandahar base or Afghan personnel the moment the RQ-170 took off.
Iranian intelligence collaborates closely with Taliban in the Kandahar region; its agents supply the insurgents with arms and roadside bombs for killing Americans.
2. Pakistan betrayal: Islamabad has a large, ongoing bone to pick with Washington. Pakistanis have not forgiven Washington for its operation to kill Bin Laden in breach of their sovereignty. The drone was downed on the same day that US forces evacuated the Shamsis air base in Pakistan, which had served American drones targeting Taliban and al Qaeda bases. Islamabad ordered the evacuation in reprisal for the Nov. 24 cross-border American helicopter attack from Afghanistan which killed 24 Pakistani border post soldiers.
President Barack Obama expressed sorrow for the incident but incensed Pakistanis by withholding an apology.
The military Inter-Services Intelligence agency-ISI is believed by some US and other Western circles to have chosen to settle scores and humiliate the Obama administration by passing US Sentinel drone secrets to Tehran.
China's interest in keeping Iran safe from attack
Islamabad had been working for several months to develop – or acquire – the technology after another perceived US affront. Four or five months ago, after US media reported Washington planned to commandeer Pakistan's nuclear arsenal because it was not safe in Pakistani hands, their leaders decided to go after American stealth drone secrets to defend their nuclear assets.
In that case, sharing them with Tehran, would have served as a warning to Washington that Pakistan can do US intelligence untold harm if America keeps up the pressure.
3. The Chinese hand: Also under investigation is another incident involving Pakistan. After the Bin Laden assassination eight months ago, the ISI allowed Chinese military engineers to examine the wreckage of an American stealth Blackhawk helicopter which crashed during the operation and let them take samples of the "stealth" skin which allowed the helicopter to carry the SEALs in undetected by Pakistani radar.
Beijing will certainly have studied its sensor and communications technology and may have found ways to unwrap the "stealth skin" which may be the same or similar to the coating used in the RQ-170. China may then have passed those secrets to Iran – plus the means for jamming the drone's electronic systems in order to force it down.
With these secrets in hand, Iran would have tried by reverse engineering to find out how to track the Sentinel and guide it down.
Beijing would have been motivated for thus arming Iran by its wish to thwart a US or Israeli strike on its Iran's nuclear facilities. China fears that this attack would endanger its oil supplies from Iran and the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz to Gulf exports would also shut off the flow of 58 percent of its energy supply, while also hiking prices to a ruinous $250 a barrel.
Russian arms to Tehran and Iranian moles in America
4. Russian arms sales: Monday, Oct. 25, Moscow announced the delivery to Iran of Avtobaza truck-mounted jammers, which are portable advanced short-range electronic weapons designed for defense against attacking planes, drones and rockets.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that the Avtobaza jammers are activated by Russian electronic anti-aircraft and combat systems, part of a very advanced radar system called ELINT-electronic signals intelligence which provides early warning when enemy warplanes and rockets approach targets.
The Avtobaza's range is exceptional. It can jam and disarm 60 targets simultaneously at a 150-kilometer range and through 360 degrees. Its response time is up to 20 minutes.
ELINT transmits incoming data via fiber optics to electronic command air defense centers which then goes into action to foil those attacks.
Russia may have taken the opportunity to conduct a field test in Iran of its cutting-edge system against a sophisticated piece of American drone hardware.
So far, Moscow has only given Tehran the jammers, not the rest of the system. However after the Avtobaza sale was clinched three months ago, Washington and Jerusalem began to suspect that the Russians and Iranians had secretly agreed to the sale of the entire ELINT system to Iran in careful stages to disarm opposition.
The complete ELINT infrastructure, with exhaustive Russian instruction, would be able to identify and strike any planes or drones, even stealth aircraft, entering Iranian air space.
5. Iranian moles: Tehran did not have to call on Pakistani, Chinese or Russian for help to secure the sensitive Sentinel technology because its intelligence employed double agents planted among the hundreds of Iranian-American scientists and engineers working in the US industries manufacturing stealth aircraft and the intelligence systems using them.
Sunday, Dec. 4, the moment Tehran announced it had the RQ-170, American spy hunters were digging for an Iranian mole.