But the hijacking and safe landing of the RQ-170 in Iran, if true, would represent a new level of cyberintrigue in the drone wars.
First, Iran would need to spot the stealth drone. Second, it would need to jam the encrypted GPS signal. Third, it would have to substitute a false signal that the internal systems on the drone could understand and obey.
US experts say even the first task – spotting the drone – would be very difficult for Iran.
"The weak point in the Iranian argument is how they detected the drone in the first place, which I find implausible given the existing quality of their air-defense system, which is not sufficiently sophisticated to detect it," says Dennis Gormley, a University of Pittsburgh expert on unmanned air systems, including cruise missiles and drones, who also worked in the intelligence community. "Their air defenses are of a type that doesn't have the ability to detect a low-cross-section vehicle like the RQ-170."
Aviation website AviationIntel.com, however, notes that Iran recently took possession of an advanced jamming system from Russia called “Avtobaza” that perhaps could have detected communication signals going to and from the drone.
"There is no reason why [that] system could not have detected the Sentinel's electronic trail and … jammed it," the site reads.
US experts are unmoved. The US used a stealth helicopter in the Osama bin Laden raid that went undetected, and US military planes have bombed all over the world undetected. So for Iran to detect a far-smaller stealth drone seems "almost like science fiction," says John Bumgarner, chief technology officer for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit cyber-warfare think tank.