High Tensions Over Drones
The US military uses 7000 airborne unmanned aircraft. These craft range in size from an insect, to a hobby RC plane which is launched like one might throw a football, to ones that are launched via runways and carry combat loads like the Predator. Most are of the spy variety, looking for intelligence, identifying targets.
This element of the ever evolving battlefield is controlled by the USA. And it is a big, important, vital piece of the American War Machine. But, the very benefit of the unmanned aircraft is becoming its Achilles Heel. While the pilot is safe, 7000 miles away from the combat lines, the system’s functional integrity and the final thought processes required in pressing that trigger mechanism have come under assault.
While we’re currently facing the news that Iran has it’s talons on a “highly secret” RQ-109, the American UAV’s have been under electronic siege for years, including a recent hack job where a ‘logging’ virus infiltrated the supposedly segregated and clean habitat at a USAF base in Nevada just in September of this year. Simple thumbdrives are again the ‘carriers’ of this virus and the seemingly inoculated USAF system has become infested with it.
“We keep wiping it off,” said a Danger Room source in an article I read. “And it keeps coming back.” That’s not what you want to hear when you speak of a virus.
Most of the USAF experts believe it is a keylogger virus, keeping track of every keystroke that is made. But this seems too persistent and virulent just to be a keylogger.
Is it any accident that Iran swore to revenge the Stuxnet virus attack that crippled 5 different Iranian organizations? The RQ-170, which looks an awful lot like the B-2 Stealth Bomber (thus, perhaps, using some of the same stealth properties and techniques), may yield the Iranians nothing but a propaganda victory, but shows that the UAV class of assets is susceptible to failure, be it loss of control (flying out of range), or technologically based (interception, jamming, and possible hostile takeover). And a UAV WITH stealth capabilities may yet yield a crippling discovery for manned stealth assets. With their Chinese/Russian friends penchant for E-attacks on American assets, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they have some sophistication in the arena of e-espionage.
The e-attacks aren’t the only burr in the back side of the UAV service. More than a few have had their video feed encrypted, so the militants have latched on to the feed with a $26 piece of software, and have seen the footage live just as they do at CentCom in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. These electrical compromises show that the system is not inoculated and shows that the US does not ‘own the sky’ outright any more. The savings, in fuel, construction, even in the amount of personnel seem to be countered by the glaring weakness in the network security.
Now comes word of a separate incident where a Predator crashed in the island nation of the Seychelles.
A second concern about UAV’s is the insulation and separation the craft gives to the ‘pilot’ far away from the combat theater and the cushion from immediate feedback of the destruction and gravity of executing the mission.
30 CIA craft (mainly piloted by USAF pilots in Nevada) have struck 200+ times in Pakistan and killed (according to Wash Post) 2000 militants and civilians. Another article put it at as much as a 15-1 civvie-militant death ratio. It doesn’t help matters that the Taliban/islamists love to hide amongst families. They do not fight man-to-man. They battle in ways that make us puke. But the facts are, a lot of ‘innocents’ are paying the price. Perhaps that’s part of the strategy. Making the cost too high to continue to shelter the dimwits that hold them hostage via force.
UAV’s, as an asset, deserves a place in our arsenal, but I have always thought eyes on target, in the form a physical presence, that can absorb some of the subtle nuances of the local theater, gives far more benefit than just a guy in a robe in some base thousands of miles away. With the continued outsourcing of critical parts, especially from a country that has shown a desire… no, a lust to steal information, and worse, a glee at supplying mass amounts of inferior and faulty parts to many places in markets military and civilian, it seems counter-productive to continue to that relationship.
Americans will have to come to grips with the fact that we’re in the midst of WW3. This war has seen us bluster about for 10 years and use up precious resources over terrorists stuck in the 16th century, yet ignore the more pressing attacks from nations far more capable of ending every life on the continent. It’s an amazing development. We average dolts did not forsee the degree of conflict from the East, but we did see that the Middle East was a region bursting at the seams and aching for a fight.
The UAV is a tool that for a long time has been a safe and reasonably secure piece of weaponry in the US arsenal. But it’s recent vulnerabilities are being loudly proclaimed, and are out there for all to see…friend and foe.. and the DOD would be wise to make critical software adjustments as fast as humanly possible. They should piggyback that change with altering their usage of UAV’s in combat and exposure of them to hostile forces. They are no longer immune to failure and unless it tactically important, they should be held in reserve unless there is a dearth of satellite coverage.