In northeastern Iran in December of 2011, one of America’s most advanced spy drones landed unexpectedly and was quickly acquired by the Iranian military. The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel was summarily paraded on the world’s news as a victory for the Iranian intelligence services. They claimed that they had broken into the Sentinel’s satellite communication up-link and simply told the super-secret spy plane to land softly in the desert where it could be recovered. The US has never acknowledged anything other than the Sentinel landed in hostile territory.
It is however safe to assume that whatever the reason for the spy planes loss from our control, the full weight of Iranian cryptologists and computer specialists would have been brought to bear on the gold mine of information that dropped into their lap. The cache of secrets the Iranians may have revealed by a study of the planes advanced technology in communications, encryption, flight planning, satellite navigation, photography, and even the fly by wire airframe control of the Sentinel is hard to imagine. The downing of the Sentinel in Iran seemed like an innocuous and unfortunate loss at the time, but with the disappearance of Malaysian FLT 370 the mind starts to ask – What If?
What if, the claim by the Iranians that they had jammed our satellite communications to our spy plane and replaced them with their own communications link is true? And what if they simply had instructed the billion dollar Sentinel to land in the desert where they could drop by and pick it up? And what if over the last three years, their investigations into the Sentinels systems has revealed to them fruitful information about remotely piloted planes, the GPS systems that they rely on, and the communication systems that keep them in the original operators control? Is it then beyond rational thought to ponder the possibility that they could have used that technological leap to remotely snatch a computer controlled civilian plane, say a Boeing 777, as the first demonstration run of that capability?
Is the idea as farfetched as it sounds? Actually yes. But is it within the realm of possibility, unfortunately that answer is yes as well.
Who out of all the nations on earth would have both the intellectual capability to demonstrate such a technological achievement, and possess the temerity to operationally use such a capability? Who indeed, out of that small number of countries, also has in its possession of one of the most technologically sophisticated spy planes the world has ever seen to help develop that very capability. A plane that has so many secrets on-board that its very existence is still muttered in hushed tones. What would such a country do if indeed it did have this new capability in its grasp?
Let’s take this “What If” question one step further and examine the terrorist possibilities such a capability would provide a country possessing this capability. Until now, there have been no credible claims of responsibility for Malaysia Air FLT 370’s disappearance and no concrete answer given to its disappearance. Therefore the mind is still open to wander the various possibilities. If Malaysian Air FLT 370 was indeed abducted from its flight plan by electronic means, the terror implications of repeated use of this capability are enormous. Such a country could blackmail its way out of any situation. It could threaten the entire world’s transportation. It would reserve its place at the big-boy table currently occupied by the nuclear fraternity.
But what if the technological capability to snatch planes out of the air is not yet fully realized, are there still unthinkable terror scenarios still open? Ask yourself, what would be the result if Iran simply claimed it was behind the disappearance and declared that the Sentinel abduction was proof it can accomplish such a feat? What if they decided to use a full on publicity propaganda attack? In such a case the worlds press would transmit the story round the world in seconds. The world’s population would be instantly put on notice that the next flight they take could be their last. The effects on the economy, the security implications, the political ramifications, and the massive eroding of public trust in our most basic systems would be incalculable.
Terrorism would indeed have reached a new plateau, without firing a shot. Have we now arrived at an Elevated Threat?