Hacked Drones and ISR

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.

Ospreys in Afghanistan

Well. It looks like the first squadron deployment of MV-22B Ospreys to Afghanistan has begun.

I’m ambivalent about the whole Osprey program. I’m willing to stipulate that it is a very impressive aircraft. But is it the right aircraft for the Marines? What say you?

H/T: Theo Spark

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Welcome home, Captain

We’ve talked before about what happens if to you if you are wounded. We’ve talked before about what happens if you are killed. But there’s another category that people in the service just don’t like to talk about much- what happens if you are missing?

On Saturday, officials from the Department of Defense notified next of kin that the remains of Capt. Scott Speicher had been identified.

The remains of the first American lost in the Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said Sunday, a sorrowful resolution of a nearly two-decade old question about the fate of Navy Capt. Michael “Scott” Speicher.

Capt. Speicher, then a Leiutenant Commander, was piloting an F/A-18 Hornet on the first night of strikes during Operation Desert Storm. He was apparently shot down by an Iraqi MiG-25. In the confusion of that night, no one realized at first that he had been shot down.

Capt. Speicher was variously listed as missing, missing- presumed killed in action, missing, and missing- captured. I’ve long been skeptical that he was alive.

But the point is this- dead or alive, your country will never stop looking for you. The armed forces jointly operate several teams that look for missing service members from all our nation’s wars. Sometimes, they have success. More often, frustration. But they never cease.

A personal vignette. Shortly after my father died, and his obituary had time to circulate, I received a call from an older man. It was the brother of the only crewman to go missing from my Dad’s squadron in Vietnam. He of course wanted to pass on his condolences. But he also had to check to see if Dad had passed on anything about his brother. He could leave no stone unturned. I felt terrible. I knew what my father’s fate was. I knew he had lived a good life. A long life. And I knew he had passed surrounded by his family. And I felt worse that I couldn’t give a comforting answer to this man, looking for his brother.

Today is a day of sorrow for the family of Capt. Speicher. But perhaps it is also a day of closure. There are many other families waiting. Perhaps some day, closure will come to comfort them as well.

The French?

As we’ve mentioned before, we like bashing the French as much as the next guy. But they really do have an army, and they really are in Afghanistan. I’ll leave it for the folks that have been there/done that to comment on any interactions they may have had with our Gallic cousins. In the meantime, here’s a  quick clip of the French on the ground.


I’ll note without snark that the air support is from A-10s, none of which are in French service, but only operated by the US Air Force.

Joint Air Attack Team

We’ve talked before about how the post-Vietnam era Army found itself facing down an enormous Soviet Group of Forces in East Germany, and struggling to find a  way to deter them from rolling over NATO forces.

The standard Soviet tactic was the echelon attack. A US brigade might find itself under attack by a full Soviet Motor-Rifle Division. Fair enough. As a rule of thumb, units in the defense are expected to be able to handle an attack by a force up to three times their size. The problem came when the second echelon of Soviet forces would slam into our US brigade, before they have had time to reset after the first attack. And if the second echelon didn’t break through, there was a third echelon behind that. Sooner or later, our US brigade would be overwhelmed.

The key to defeating the echelon attack was  to disrupt the follow-on second and third echelons. We’ve discussed the Cobra and Apache attack helicopters in the deep strike role. And the Air Force would do its part by performing interdiction missions, dropping bridges, disrupting supply and fuel depots.

But there was another tactic, designed to compliment the strenghts and minimize the weaknesses of attack helicopters and close air support aircraft like the A-10. That was the Joint Air Attack Team, or JAAT. Utilizing artillery, scout and attack helicopters, Airborne Forward Air Controllers, and close air support aircraft like the A-10, a JAAT could overwhelm the air defenses of a Soviet unit and pound it into the dirt. Even if the unit wasn’t destroyed, it would be so disrupted that it couldn’t keep to its schedule. This would buy our defending ground brigade time to reset from the first echelon and prepare for its attack.

Here’s a training film from either the late 70’s or early 80’s showing the basic concept.


With the exception of the A-10, all the platforms shown have been replaced. The M-60 tanks have been replaced by M-1s, the OH-58 scouts by updated OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, the AH-1Qs by AH-64s, and the OV-10 by modified OA-10A’s.  Still, the basic concept is still a viable one.

There were a couple of real challenges to making a JAAT work. First, airspace management. It can be a real challenge making sure artillery rounds and airplanes don’t occupy the same airspace. For obvious reasons, the aviators, both Army and Air Force are kinda picky about that. There’s also the challenge of making sure the helicopters and fixed wing air know where each other are, to avoid collisions.

The other challenge was timeliness. It takes some time to put a JAAT together. If the JAAT takes too long to assemble, it can miss its chance to catch the follow on echelon. But if units have trained together before, and have worked out the kinks, it can be put together much more quickly.


We usually leave the air-defense discussion to Chockblock, since that’s his area of expertise. But we thought we’d toss this one up because we were a little surprised to see it.

Air Defense Artillery in the Army has been getting a lot of funding and attention for its role in Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), focusing mainly on the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) programs. The only other program getting attention for a long time was the Stinger and its variants.

US forces have pretty much been free from interference from enemy air attack for 50 years, so Air Defense doesn’t always get a lot of budget attention. So, we were somewhat surprised to see even this small $30 million budget allocation for long lead items for a program that’s been around awhile. The SLAMRAAM is basically what its name says, a surface launched variant of the primary US air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 AMRAAM or Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile. Likely changes to the missile include a different motor better suited to ground launch. Whereas the AMRAAM normally works with a mid-course update from the launching aircraft’s radar, it is likely that the ground launch version would only be used in the “fire and forget” mode.  The press release is unclear wether the program is intended for the Army, the Marines (the Army buys missiles for them) or for foreign purchasers.

Sorry there’s no sound to the clip, but I think you get the gist of it.