Friday, December 18, 2009

Editorial: More fact than fiction: On Predator Hacking...

I read with great interest the many articles detailing how Iraqi insurgents were able to intercept Predator UAV downlink video and was both amazed and aghast.

Recently, I had just finished a re-write on my novel "The Interceptors Club & the Secret of the Black Manta" which (as its' McGuffin)centers around a rag-tag gang of hackers who manage to steal an advanced, stealthy prototype UAV known as the Black Manta.

Almost everything in the novel is loosely base on my true "interceptor" experiences, except for the part about then theft of a UAV. I've never done that.

Although the hacking of a fictional UAV (in my book) is what the action is centered around, I was worried that it might be a bit far-fetched for the reader to buy and required a good amount of the suspension of disbelief - but not anymore.

The revelation that Iraqi insurgents are intercepting UAV video downlinks just pushed my fiction from "could it happen?" to well inside the "that's not so far fetched at all" zone.

Although by all accounts, there is no-possible-way a UAV could be commandeered by insurgents, the fact that by employing "skygrabber" software (combined with a C/KU band antenna and receiver) enables them to easily intercept video feeds is very disturbing indeed.

Despite what the DOD may say, not only is there a distinct possibility that anti-insurgency operations could (and probably have) been compromised by what an enemy may have learned from watching the feeds, the fact they could detect the feeds at all) is a major breech of military security

As a result, you can bet the farm that somewhere in some secret sub-committee, techs are being called on the carpet and heads are going to roll.

Just as a small example, by watching the feeds an enemy could not only deduce which areas were being surveilled by the Predators but could ascertain where the Predators were based, aerial images of those bases, standard UAV operational procedures as well the limits of what a Predator or other drone can or cannot see at altitude.

Not to mention, even with the Pentagon's (now urgent, since the cat has been let out of the bag) program to encrypt the video-downlinks of all its UAVs, the mere fact that the enemy could detect (even if they couldn't view) the Predator downlinks is still a major problem.

In the future, the insurgents may not be able to tune in and watch "The UAV Channel" but the detectable presence of even an encrypted digital downlink will be enough to tip off the enemy that they are being watched, therefore it is imperative the whole downlink system be revamped to employ LPI (Low-probability of intercept) narrow-band microwave frequencies or (optical modulated laser) transmission techniquesto render the downlinks undetectable and only receivable by friendly forces.

In the meantime, U.S. forces should flood the airwaves with real and faked and easily intercepted video downlink feeds, which could be accomplished by several COMMAND SOLO C-130Es. That way the insurgents wouldn't know which feeds were live and which ones were Memorex.

In any event all drones will require an expensive and extensive retro-fit, requiring testing, field-testing and re-testing of an entirely new (satellite-based) UAV command control and communications system which wouldn't have been necessary if Pentagon planners would stop underestimating the technical savvy of what they perceive is an unsophisticated enemy.

-Steve Douglass

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