An MQ-1B Predator from the 361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, July 9, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Sabrina Johnson)

The Wall Street Journal has reported that our medieval enemies in Southwest Asia are able to grab live video feeds from unmanned aerial systems operating over Southwest Asia, using a cheap and readily available software package.

“Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

…Last December, U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered copies of Predator drone feeds on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter. “There was evidence this was not a one-time deal,” this person said. The U.S. accuses Iran of providing weapons, money and training to Shiite fighters in Iraq, a charge that Tehran has long denied.

…The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones. Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes.

— Gorman, Siobhan, Yochi J. Dreazen and August Cole.  “Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones.” Wall Street Journal, 18 December 2009.

If you are wondering how in the world this is possible, it is because the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers use unencrypted civil, not military, SATCOM links.  Earlier this year, when SecDef Gates and his acquisition czar John Young were busy putting the boots to the AF for failing to have 31 UAS CAPs over Iraq and Afghanistan, they were also busy killing funding for next-generation SATCOM upgrades, such as the Transformational Satellite (TSAT).

You see, USAF does not have the SATCOM bandwidth to host the UAS data feeds in-house, and it won’t until it has a full WGS (Wideband Global SATCOM) constellation on orbit.

The Predator and Reaper rely on commercial, unencrypted links, which could potentially be intercepted by someone. Much of the UAS control is also done on Ku frequency bands, a frequency intended for satellite control, not air-to-ground communications. As a result, UAS control is a low priority—and the Air Force risks not having assured access.

To overcome these problems, the Air Force recognizes that the future Wideband Global SATCOM satellite or similar technologies can provide the secure communication links. In addition, the service is looking at potential surrogate satellite networks using high-altitude aircraft, such as lighter-than-air vehicles, to provide a data link network node.

— Isherwood, Michael W.  “Roadmap for Robotics.” Air Force magazine, December 2009, p. 34.

The question I asked (back in April 2009) was “will it still make sense to flood the sky with an ever-increasing number of UCAVs if your ability to see their output is constrained by your network?”  Well, we now know that DoD’s solution to the constrained milcom network was to use civil assets instead.  And as we are finding out now, there is a cost to that.

(Hat tip to Neptunus Lex for spotting the story.)

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