Editor's note: P.W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century," which is being published in paperback on December 29.
(CNN) -- It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster: A group of insurgents hack into American military drones, using software they got off the Internet, according to The Wall Street Journal. But, for the benefit of that screenwriter likely pounding away right now to get his idea in first -- as well as for the general public -- what actually happened?
Essentially, three trends are coming together in war.
First is the growing use of unmanned systems, something I explore in my book "Wired for War." Just a few years ago, the U.S. military had no interest in unmanned systems. Indeed, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, we had only a handful of unmanned systems in the air and zero on the ground in the invasion force, none of them armed.
Today, we have more than 7,000 in the air, ranging from the 48-foot-long Predator to tiny ones that can fit in a backpack, and 12,000 on the ground, such as the Packbot and Talon systems that hunt down roadside bombs. Many of these systems are armed, giving new meaning to the term "killer app."
This 180-degree turn to robotics, however, often came in an ad-hoc manner. The back-end networks didn't perfectly fit with the wide variety of unmanned systems that were being plugged in.
Even more, the pressure was on to push the systems out as rapidly as possible, for very good reason. There was a war on, and these unmanned systems were proving to be far more useful to our troops than what the regular Pentagon acquisitions process had been providing.
One robotics company executive described how he couldn't even get his phone calls returned a few years ago. Now, he was told, "Make them as fast as you can."
Second, though, was a dash of arrogance. In not coming through the regular planning and purchasing system, many of the systems used proprietary software as well as commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. So many of the communications feeds going back and forth were poorly protected, and, in some cases, not even encrypted.
This was the case, for example, for some of the overhead surveillance video feeds that the unmanned systems were collecting and, in turn, beaming back both to command posts as well as to American patrols on the ground, who watch the feed off ROVER. (Akin to Dick Tracy's watch, this is a rugged video monitor a soldier can strap onto his or her arm or gear.)
The problem of the relatively open video feeds has been known for a while. Indeed, back during our operations in the Balkans, it was discovered that just about anyone in Eastern Europe with a satellite dish could watch live overhead footage of U.S. Special Operations forces going out on raids of suspected war criminals. One joker commented that it was harder to tap into the Disney Channel.
But the Pentagon assumed that foes in the Middle East wouldn't be smart enough to figure this out, and underestimated how quickly the technology to tap in to the feeds would advance, becoming cheaper and widely available. The problems were not fixed, and more and more of these relatively open systems were deployed.
Unfortunately, we all know what happens when we "assume" our enemies are dumb (they make something out of "u" and "me.").
Using a $26 software package called Skygrabber, originally designed to allow customers to download movies and songs off the Internet (none of them pirated, of course), insurgents were able to tap into the various U.S. military video feeds, The Wall Street Journal reported. U.S. forces became aware of it after they captured a Shiite militia member in Iraq, whose laptop had files of the pirated footage saved on it.
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