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.
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