A U.S. official on Wednesday rejected reports that China’s military was behind Iran’s downing of a U.S. spy drone.
Two online news outlets, one in Asia and one in the Middle East, recently reported that China likely had a role in the downing of the CIA-operated stealth drone known as the RQ-170 over Iran in December.
The drone was on a classified reconnaissance flight under the control of the CIA in western Afghanistan when the remote pilots lost control due to an unspecified malfunction.
Iran initially claimed it shot down the drone but then said it crashed. Later the aircraft was shown mostly undamaged aircraft on Iranian television. Iranian officials said in published reports that they would share the stealth drone technology with China and Russia.
President Obama asked Iran to return the drone, a request Tehran rejected.
A second official pointed to U.S. reports on the incident indicating that the remotely piloted aircraft was hacked through Global Positioning Systems (GPS) "spoofing," breaking in to the aircraft’s navigation and feeding false information that triggered a landing.
The sophistication of that type of cyber capability was likely beyond the scope of the Iranian military.
However, China, which has been involved in supplying Iran’s air defense with missiles and radar since the 1990s, may have been involved, according to Japan’s Facta, a monthly magazine, and DEBKAfile, a sensationalist Israeli national security newsletter.
Facta quoted a British MI-6 intelligence expert in London as saying: "It seems Chinese experts hacked the RQ-170's communication system and rewrote it to make the plane misjudge that it was approaching its base and to make it land on the Iranian territory." The source also said: "This is a typical example of attacks in the cyber space."
DEBKA reported Feb. 3 that its military and intelligence sources claimed "the Americans know Iran did not bring the RQ-170 down because their intelligence agencies discovered the culprits were a Chinese cyber warfare team which seized control of the drone; Iran was given the passive role of being told where and when to hold out their arms to catch it."
According to the newsletter, "the Obama administration is keeping this information to itself so as not to compromise U.S. economic relations with China, especially in a presidential election year."
The first U.S. official said in response: "That assertion is nothing short of ludicrous."
China has been building up Iranian air defenses near the border with Afghanistan since the early 2000s, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Chinese technicians helped construct an advanced radar system known as the JY-14. The radar is part of an integrated tracking and missile-interceptor system built by China’s state-run National Electronics Import and Export Corp., based in Beijing.
The JY-14 is sophisticated radar that provides long-range surveillance of aircraft and missiles as part of an automated air-defense system. It can track up to 100 targets simultaneously and feed the data to missile-interceptor batteries. The radar also can track targets flying as high as 75,000 feet and 186 miles in distance.