Even in the US, a computer virus infected the virtual cockpits of pilots controlling America’s Predator and Reaper drones at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., "logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones," Wired.com reported in October.
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."