Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Drone Crash in Iran Reveals Secret U.S. Surveillance Effort/photos

Drone Crash in Iran Reveals Secret U.S. Surveillance Effort
Published: December 7, 2011

WASHINGTON — The stealth C.I.A. drone that crashed deep inside Iranian territory last week was part of a stepped-up surveillance program that has frequently sent the United States’ most hard-to-detect drone into the country to map suspected nuclear sites, according to foreign officials and American experts who have been briefed on the effort.
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An undated photo of an RQ-170 Sentinel drone at the air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. One of the drones crashed in Iran.

Until this week, the high-altitude flights from bases in Afghanistan were among the most secret of many intelligence-collection efforts against Iran, and American officials refuse to discuss it. But the crash of the vehicle, which Iranian officials said occurred more than 140 miles from the border with Afghanistan, blew the program’s cover.

The overflights by the bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, built by Lockheed Martin and first glimpsed on an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009, are part of an increasingly aggressive intelligence collection program aimed at Iran, current and former officials say. The urgency of the effort has been underscored by a recent public debate in Israel about whether time is running out for a military strike to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon.

In a recent speech, President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, hinted at secret efforts by the United States to keep watch on Iran’s nuclear program.

“We will continue to be vigilant,” Mr. Donilon said last month at the Brookings Institution. “We will work aggressively to detect any new nuclear-related efforts by Iran. We will expose them and force Iran to place them under international inspections.”

Iran said over the weekend that it had captured the RQ-170, the same drone deployed over Osama bin Laden’s compound before he was killed in May. Senior intelligence officials were disturbed that the drone was publicly discussed in the coverage of the Bin Laden raid, in part because of the fear of exposing its use over Iran.

A statement Sunday from the American-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said Iran might have recovered an “unarmed reconnaissance aircraft” lost while “flying a mission over western Afghanistan.” But several experts noted that the sophisticated stealth technology of the RQ-170 — which greatly reduces the chances that the drone can be detected by radar — had little use in western Afghanistan, because the Taliban have no radar to detect flights.

Iranian officials have said that the aircraft was detected near the town of Kashmar, 140 miles from the Afghan border, and that it was shot down or crashed because its control systems were hacked by the Iranian military. American officials say that those stories are fanciful, and that the drone was lost because of a malfunction.

Either way, the centerpiece of what had been a covert program is now in the hands of Iranian forces, which may share the captured technology with other countries. There are differing accounts of the extent of the damage to the craft; Iran has not published photographs of the wreckage, though officials have said video of the drone may soon be broadcast on television.

Two officials said that the United States briefly considered going in to retrieve the downed drone, or to destroy it, as first reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal, but the operation was deemed too risky. There are questions about whether Iran could reverse-engineer the technology, though they certainly could sell the vehicle to China, Russia or other countries with a deep interest in it.

“The flights from Moscow and Beijing to Tehran were probably quite full the last few days,” said P. W. Singer, who studies military robotics at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Singer said that the most sought-after technology on the craft is probably its array of sensors, which may include sophisticated radar that is more advanced than anything Russia or China use currently.

Dennis M. Gormley, a missile and drone expert at the University of Pittsburgh, said reverse-engineering the aircraft itself will be difficult even for a sophisticated military. “Unless somebody put the engineering drawings in the U.A.V.,” he said, using the abbreviation for unmanned aerial vehicle, “it won’t be easy. In any complex piece of aviation equipment, you have to replicate the tolerances precisely.”

In Abbottabad, Pakistan, the RQ-170 was used to model the Bin Laden compound. In Iran, among other missions, it is looking for tunnels, underground facilities or other places where Iran could be building centrifuge parts or enrichment facilities.

One such facility, outside Qum, was revealed by President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain in 2009, though it appears that Israel played a major role in detecting that facility. One senior official said recently that “we’ve got nothing of that scale yet,” but added “we are looking every day.”

Surveillance of Iran is nothing new: American satellites have been trained on its nuclear facilities, their missile bases and their defenses for many years. But the RQ-170 Sentinel, which can fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet, is considered especially vital to the effort.

While an orbiting surveillance satellite can observe a location for only a few minutes at a time, a drone can loiter for hours, sending a video feed as people move about the site. Such a “pattern of life,” as it is called, can give crucial clues to the nature of the work being done, the equipment used and the size of the work force.

“It’s basically like staking out a Mafia social club,” said John Pike, who tracks military technology at the Web site “If I’m just looking at brick-and-mortar targets, satellite’s fine. But if I want to see what people are doing all day, the drone is a whole lot better.”

In addition to video cameras, independent experts say the drone almost certainly carries communications intercept equipment and sensors that can detect tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes and other chemicals that can give away nuclear research.

News reports in South Korea in 2009 said the United States planned to base the RQ-170 drone there to fly surveillance missions over North Korea, whose nuclear and missile programs are a top American intelligence target.

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Squared exhaust nozzle:


Aviation Week story on origins of Beast of Kandahar/RQ-170 drone

Stealth fighter marks important anniversary

Alamogordo Daily News
By Arlan Ponder, For the Daily News
Posted: 12/06/2011 10:31:20 PM MST

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"Have Blue," is the predecessor of the Air Force's famed F-117A Nighthawk ... (U.S. Air Force photo)
To many people, Dec. 1 marked a realization that there were only 24 more shopping days to Christmas. But to people who are involved with stealth fighters, an event happened on this date that forever changed the world of aviation.

It was the first flight of "Have Blue."

Have Blue was the predecessor of the Air Force's famed F-117A Nighthawk -- the first "stealth fighter" in the Air Force's inventory.

On Dec. 1, 1977, just after sunrise at Groom Lake, Nev., HB1001 made its maiden flight, and history, as Lockheed test pilot Bill Park took it through its flight.

Ben Rich, the former head of Lockheed's Skunk Works that built many of the nation's most advanced aircraft said, "This flight will be every bit as important to the nation's future and the future of the Skunk Works as the first test flight of the U-2 spy plane."

This came after the prototype was flown disassembled, via a C-5 Galaxy, from the Lockheed Plant in Burbank, Calif., to the classified Nevada base. The crew who made that historic flight in the middle of the night Nov. 16, 1977, never knew they had the first Experimental Survivable Testbed prototype in their cargo hold until years later after the F-117A came out of "the black."

The Have Blue prototypes, or XST, were the first fixed-wing aircraft designed from an electrical engineering (rather than an aerodynamic) perspective and, while similar to the later F-117, were smaller with greater wing sweep and inward-canted vertical tails.

Weighing only

8,950 pounds empty, the Have Blue aircraft topped out at a max takeoff weight of only 12,500 pounds. Lockheed engineers exploited as much off-the-shelf technology as practical to reduce design risks and keep costs and design turnaround times to a minimum.
The production aircraft used an environmental control system adapted from the C-130 Hercules; flight controls from the F-16 Fighting Falcon; brakes from the F-15 Strike Eagle; an ACES-2 ejection seat common to the F-15, F-16 and A-10 Warthog; and comm/nav equipment used in other Tactical Air Command aircraft. The ground support equipment used for the aircraft was common to 95 percent of other aircraft, thus facilitating deployments and cutting life cycle/logistical costs.

Have Blue had only three objectives:

• In-flight validation of the four low-observable signatures the program had previously identified.

• Demonstrate acceptable flying qualities and performance.

• Demonstrate modeling capabilities that accurately predict low-observable characteristics of an aircraft in flight.

Additional variations of Have Blue included the absence of flaps, a speed-brake and weapons bays on the XSTs. With regard to the inward-canted vertical tail section, initial beliefs that the inward-canted tails would help shield the hot exhaust from infrared detection proved exactly the opposite; it funneled the hot exhaust straight down beneath the aircraft, increasing its infrared signature.

The F-117A also employed a targeting Forward Looking Infrared, or FLIR, system mounted in a recess below the windshield. Target acquisition and weapon delivery is carried out with a ventral FLIR/laser turret, to the right of the nose wheel bay. Due to the absence of radar for ranging to bomb release, the laser provided both range finding and designation for weapons, its ventral position providing a similar field of view to established FLIR/laser targeting systems such as Pave Tack. 5

The navigation/attack system was fully digital and built around IBM mission computers and MIL-STD-1553B busses, integrated with Honeywell inertial navigation equipment. The cockpit employed a Kaiser HUD derived from the F-18 Hornet's AVQ-28, Honeywell color multi-function displays coupled to a Harris digital tactical (moving map) display system.

The Air Force has revealed the existence of a ground based automated mission planning system that used a ground based computer, graphics consoles and the aircraft's Delco 1553 bussed cartridge tape system for uploading mission particulars into the navigation/attack system. In addition, the flight instrumentation included a Honeywell radar altimeter and air data computer.

Sadly, on May 4, 1978, HB1001 met its demise on its 37th test flight, when landing gear trouble resulted in a decision for Park to eject. Park was injured in the incident and never flew again. As a result of his injuries and the subsequent removal from flight status, Lockheed named him their director of flight operations.

A short 13 months later HB1002 met the same fate as Air Force test pilot Ken Dyson ejected from it after experiencing engine and hydraulic failure. By this point, the program was within a few sorties of its planned completion and had achieved all of the Have Blue program's objectives.

Considered an overwhelming success, the Air Force closed the doors on Have Blue. Both of the prototypes are buried at Groom Lake.

As a result of the testing on Have Blue, numerous changes were made from the prototypes to the final F-117 design. The most noticeable difference was the arrangement of the vertical tail. On Have Blue, the tails are inward-canted, while on the Nighthawk the tails are outward-canted.

In the end, it was determined the inward-canted tails acted as reflectors and bounced the exhaust heat toward the ground and made the aircraft more visable from below. Designers ultimately moved the tails back on the F-117 so they weren't directly over the exhaust. This move also increased the tail moment arm by 50 percent, though later versions of the plane required larger tails for better control.

For the trivia minded, the windowless Skunk Works hangar where the Have Blue prototypes were engineered, fabricated and assembled is the same building that produced the F-104 Starfighter, U-2 Dragon Lady and SR-71 Blackbird aircraft. In addition, in March 1976 the radar range at White Sands Missile Range, which used the most sensitive and powerful in the free world, was used to test a wooden, flat paneled, 38-foot, black painted model nicknamed the "Hopeless Diamond."

Alan Brown, former director of engineering at Lockheed, said there couldn't be an F-22 Raptor without the F-117; however, without a test flight on Dec. 1, 1977, in a dry lake bed in Nevada, neither aircraft might have made it to the Air Force inventory.

Arlan Ponder is the media relations chief for the 49th Wing Public Affairs Office at Holloman Air Force Base.


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