US military aircraft video feeds compromised


This morning, The Wall Street Journal broke the deeply disturbing news that insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have the capability to monitor the video feeds from unmanned US observation and strike aircraft – the Predators and Reapers – using software that costs just $26.

U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.

This problem was known years ago and yet discounted because “the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it.”

The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it, the officials said.

But wait, it gets worse. According to the guys at the indispensable Danger Room, this problem extends to the video feeds on all US military aircraft.

Tapping into drones’ video feeds was just the start. The U.S. military’s primary system for bringing overhead surveillance down to soldiers and Marines on the ground is also vulnerable to electronic interception, multiple military sources tell Danger Room. That means militants have the ability to see through the eyes of all kinds of combat aircraft – from traditional fighters and bombers to unmanned spy planes. The problem is in the process of being addressed. But for now, an enormous security breach is even larger than previously thought.

The Department of Defense has to assume the worst case scenario here: that our rivals such as Russia and China; our adversaries such as Iran, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, etc.; and our erstwhile allies such as Pakistan, have all been monitoring our feeds for years, and thus have learned plenty about how the US plans and conducts attacks, as well as the capabilities and limitations of the weapons and observation platforms. The DoD officials downplayed the leaked information and said no US troops were harmed due to the breach. That may be true today, but may not be the case in future conflicts.

The following is purely speculation on my part. Don’t be surprised if you read a story in the next few days or weeks saying that elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency have been monitoring US Predator and Reaper feeds, and relaying targeting information to al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. I have heard far too many stories about how senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders miraculously avoided attacks and left the target sites just minutes before the strikes. The officials repeatedly told me that they believed the anti-US elements in the ISI were tipping off the terrorist commanders before the strikes.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Color me skeptical on your worst-case scenario – if the bad guys had been doing this for years we probably would have found out and taken corrective action sooner. As things stand the WSJ seems to have been informed after any open feeds on the system had been encrypted and it was safe to put the info out in public. They don’t seem to have uncovered anything – the military released this info after there was no possible harm that could be done from disclosing the information.
    Even if this has been happening for longer than a year, the only information compromised was video feeds from some older types of drones that sent unencrypted video – hardly a major intelligence coup considering the amount of information available in open sources. Video in a vacuum of other related information is not worth a whole lot – the Chinese would be spending a great deal of effort poring over raw video lacking context, location or accompanying audio for little marginal benefit.
    Perhaps the ISI could have warned people they were being targeted based on intercepted feeds, but if they call the guy, we pick up the conversation and he goes running out of the house they’ve just done our target identification work for us and they’ll get to watch their man die on candid camera.
    There is a seperate issue with video downlinks from aircraft to ground troops which, from looking at discussions of the issue over the last day, doesn’t seem like that big a problem. You need to point an antenna right at the signal source to get anything, and that seems like a good way to expose your position waving an antenna around and get killed. In any event that system is also in the process of being encrypted.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Somehow we’ve still managed to be relatively effective at targeting top AQ and Taliban leaders. The Pentagon really disappoints me on this one, assuming the enemy won’t try to find some kind of exploit.

  • Nic says:

    I sent this article and the WSJ article to my U. S. Congressman. I suggest that your readers do the same. Just a little history to put this SNAFU in perspective. The Brits read the Kaiser’s mail in WW1 resulting in the Battle of Jutland among others . The Brits read Hitler’s mail in WWII resulting in the defeat of Hitler’s navy. We read Tojo’s mail in WWII resulting in the Battle of Midway. Why didn’t our military learn from the lessons of the past?

  • russell studstill says:

    brothers and sisters let us not forget who the enemy you think the russians forgot about us supplying afganistans jihadist with stinger missles. look at what china did in the korean war.what is wrong with our gov. it is totally unbelievable that any companies should be allowed to move there business out of the usa and move it to any country for the might of saving labor. our bible is or only look a the future. i can’t believe the things our country is doing around the world.if you go to war go to win.


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