So, we wake up this morning to learn via Lex that the Iraqi insurgents have figured out how to hack into the video feeds from Predator and Reaper drones overhead. So, what’s that mean? Well, let’s take a look at what the whole video feed thing is about, first.
And age old military problem has been trying to figure out what the bad guys are up to. When you are a grunt on the ground (or even a brigade commander on the ground), very often, your ability to see what is going on in the battlefield only extends as far as the next ridgeline. In an urban environment, it is even worse- you can’t see around the next corner. As soon as airplanes became viable, the military started using them for observation. Indeed, the whole development of military aviation started as a result of this need for observation. In modern terms, this observation is called ISR or Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
Today, in the age of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, getting the high ground is pretty much accepted as the norm in our military. We’ve all seen gun camera video of Predators smacking insurgents with a Hellfire. But while it is nice to have the odd Hellfire land on Jihadi heads, what the ground commander really likes is having an eye in the sky for long periods off time. There’s a couple of different schools of thought about how to use UAVs like the Predator. The Air Force takes a more centralized approach, using the video as the first step in a long-term intelligence analysis, much of which is done stateside. The Army tends to like to use it in a more immediate sense, appreciating the ability to peek over the bad guys shoulder. Both approaches have merit. And there’s a good deal of overlap between them. The only real conflict is in how and where the UAVs are flown. That tension has been enough for the Air Force and the Army to both operate their own fleets of Predators.
There’s three major UAVs supporting the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a small UAV called the RQ-11 Raven, designed to support companies and battalions, and it’s basically just a video camera in the sky.
Raven’s are run from a laptop computer on the ground right there with the troops. The feed from the video camera is feed to the laptop, and gives the company commander a good overview of what is happening right now. It is unarmed, and pretty unsophisticated. It’s little more than an electric radio controlled model airplane with a digital video cam. Still, it is handy as heck. Cheap, reliable and an easy way to look over the next hill.
The next UAV system is one that is familiar to most of us from the news, the MQ-1Predator.
The Predator is currently operated by the Air Force. The Predator started out as a simple reconnaissance machine, again, a simple remote controlled airplane with a video camera. Pretty soon after development started, someone figured out that if you go to all the trouble of putting a day/night sensor in a stabilized mount under the nose, you might as well add a laser designator to allow it to “paint” targets for missiles and bombs. And it didn’t take long for someone to figure out that if you have all that, why not cut out the middleman and strap on a couple of Hellfire missiles as well. Now, the Predator could tap high-value or time-critical targets. Mind you, it’s primary mission is still to be a set of eyes in the sky. It’s not really an attack aircraft. The Predator can stay airborne over a target for anywhere from 14 to 18 hours, but can only carry two dinky little missiles. If it is being used to attack targets, it would still normally call on a regular jet to bring the ordnance.
Now, once the Air Force and the Army figured out how handy it was to use these UAVs in strike role, it was a logical step to produce one that was tailored more towards it. Mostly, that meant a bigger drone that had the horses under the hood to carry more weapons. That lead to the development of the MQ-9 Reaper.
You can see that the Reaper looks pretty much like a Predator on steroids. Which it is. No sense reinventing the wheel. Instead of the dinky little 115hp piston engine of a Predator, the Reaper has a 950hp turboprop engine. It’s got a bigger wing, and instead of carrying 250 pounds of weapons, it can carry up to 3000 pounds. It can still provide all the same ISR capabilites, but now, instead of having to call in a fast mover jet like an F-15E, the Reaper can provide serious close air support with 500lb bombs.
One huge advantage to the Reaper is that it is relatively cheap. Now, it’s not cheap compared to the RQ-11, but it sure is compared to an F-15E. One of the big concerns the Air Force has had (and the Navy as well) is that ever since 9/11 (indeed, ever since the end of the Gulf War) they’ve had to keep aloft patrols of expensive manned aircraft over places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That costs a lot of money to operate. Another, hidden, cost is that those hours accumulate on the airframes. Jets can only last for so many flight hours. The services don’t really like burning those flight hours droning around in circles waiting to see if someone needs some bombs. And all the time spend loitering over A-stan is time that could be spent training for other missions.
Now, since the services, especially the Air Force, would rather spend their time and money doing the things they are good at, they have sometimes dragged their feet on doing the tasks they need to do but don’t really like. SecDef Gates, last year, nudged the Air Force and said, basically, “You guys need to spend more time supporting ISR in Iraq and A-stan.” The Air Force leadership basically said “Sure thing” and went back to doing what they were doing. That made SecDef Gates unhappy. So he fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. Suddenly, the Air Force decided they were gonna jump on the ISR bandwagon, whole hog. And since they couldn’t suddenly field a whole bunch of new MQ-1s and MQ-9s, they took a retro step. They took the recon systems from the Predator family, and plugged them into a manned aircraft, the trusty Beech King Air, creating the MC-12W Liberty.
As a short term solution, it’s a pretty simple and cheap way to pump some additional ISR into the theater. All four branches of the services fly some version of the King Air. It’s a very popular and easy to operate airplane.
Now, about that video. Like I said, the Air Force model is to beam the video take form the sensors all the way back to the US (or other ground stations)via satellite and have it analyzed. That’s great, but it doesn’t do much for the grunt on the ground. So in addition, they also use a souped up version of wifi to beam the video directly to the ground, so troops using a laptop can see what the sensors see. That gives them great situational awareness and also lets them refine the tasking. That is, they can talk the sensors onto those things that they really want to take a look at. (There’s a similar program that lets them see what manned aircraft like F-15s and F-18s see through their targeting pods). They can also use this to make sure that the weapons are going to be dropped where they need them.
It turns out that the video signal is unsecured, much like a home wifi that isn’t encrypted. Whether this is because of an oversight, or for technical reasons is unknown. Not being entirely stupid, some of the insurgents have figured out a way to tap into the signal and see if they are being watched. Understand, the insurgents haven’t figured out how to hack the controls that operate the birds, just the video feed that goes to our troops on the ground. Still, it’s not a good thing. This means that some insurgents will be clued in to whether or not they are under surveillance, and maybe getting ready to take a Hellfire through the front door. It isn’t the end of the world, however. It’s surprising how hard it is to tell just what an overhead video is showing if you aren’t used to it. If you look at a Google Earth pic of your hometown, you might be surprised how long it takes you to figure out if its showing your neighborhood or not.