Drones, dollars, and the open-source insurgency

December 17, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Yesterday, I wrote on the massive new $636 billion “defense” spending bill passed by the House of Representatives.  An article in today’s Wall Street Journal should make us further question the efficacy of this type of high-technology spending.

Predator drone: costs the military $4.5 million.  Insurgents can steal the video feed for under $25.

Predator drone: costs the military $4.5 million. Anyone can steal the video feed for under $25. Image via Wikipedia (commons)

A MQ-1 Predator drone costs some $4.5 million dollars each.  They have a wingspan of approximately 48 feet, weigh 2,250 lbs. when loaded, have a range of over 2,000 miles, and have a ceiling altitude of  25,000 ft.  They can be loaded with two hellfire missiles, making them available for a combination of reconnaissance, combat or support roles.  The MQ-9 Reaper drone, the larger and more-heavily armored cousin of the Predator, cost about $10.5 million each.

The Air Force maintains a fleet of 195 Predators (total cost ~$877.5 million) and 28 Reapers (total cost ~ $294 million).  The New York Times reported earlier this year that they are flying 34 daily surveillance patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq, up from 12 in 2006.  They transmit some 16,000 hours of video each month.

Anyone can spend $25.95 to purchase Skygrabber, a program available on the internet which allows them to intercept the video transmitted by these drones.  Although the government has been aware of these security flaws since the Bosnia operations in the 90’s, they “assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it.”  You know what happens when one makes assumptions, right?  Nor is there a simple solution:

The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones. Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes. Additional concerns remain about the vulnerability of the communications signals to electronic jamming, though there’s no evidence that has occurred, said people familiar with reports on the matter.

Predator drones are built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego. Some of its communications technology is proprietary, so widely used encryption systems aren’t readily compatible, said people familiar with the matter.

In an email, a spokeswoman said that for security reasons, the company couldn’t comment on “specific data link capabilities and limitations.”

Fixing the security gap would have caused delays, according to current and former military officials. It would have added to the Predator’s price. Some officials worried that adding encryption would make it harder to quickly share time-sensitive data within the U.S. military, and with allies.

Note also that the Air Force admits that over a third of their Predator models have crashed.  Not been shot down, just crashed.  This is probably due to a design flaw which puts the button that fires the missiles right next to the button that shuts off the engines.  Oops.

This debacle is another example of the ways in which our technologically advanced, extremely expensive military is defeated or disrupted by simple, inexpensive solutions.  Consider the humble improvised explosive device (IED).  They’re cheap, easy to build or customize, and they’re devastatingly effective.  “…by the end of 2007 they [IEDs] have been responsible for approximately 40% of coalition deaths in Iraq”, and “were responsible for 63% of U.S. casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  The success of IEDs has led the military to “up-armor” their vehicles, a strategy which James Lochbaum calls “futile”.  Increasingly armored vehicles call for increasing amounts of fuel, spare parts, and other logistics.  The delivery of these necessities then becomes a target for attack, leading to the perceived need to “up-armor” the delivery vehicles as well.  Additionally, insurgents freedom fighters are always finding new ways of making the bombs more effective, either through technology or tactics, such as secondary bombs. The Stars and Stripes writes:

With every improvement in armor, though, the bombs get bigger. With every new technology to detect and deflect bombs, more sophisticated explosives pop up with deadly consequences.

Global Guerillas, a blog dedicated to “Networked tribes, systems disruption, and the emerging bazaar of violence”, often reports on these types of simple, economical ways in which small groups are disrupting standard third-generation warfare doctrine.  Typical posts include “Fighting an automated bureaucracy” which spotlights the problems caused by a traditional military chain of command, and “Basic systems disruption“.  Nor are these posts prescriptive, in the sense that they urge someone to engage in the strategies proffered, but rather they are descriptive– they are describing what our soldiers and government are already experiencing.  In a post on this Skygrabber software/drone hack today, John Robb writes:

This event isn’t an aberration.  It is an inevitable development, one that will only occur more and more often.  Why?  Military cycles of development and deployment take decades due to the dominance of a lethargic, bureaucratic, and bloated military industrial complex.  Agility isn’t in the DNA of the system nor will it ever be (my recent experience with a breakthrough and inexpensive information warfare system my team built, is yet another example of how FAIL the military acquisition system is).

In contrast, vast quantities of cheap/open/easy technologies (commercial and open source) are undergoing rapid rates of improvement.  Combined with tinkering networks that can repurpose them to a plethora of unintended needs (like warfare), this development path becomes an inexorable force.  The delta (a deficit from the perspective of the status quo, an advantage for revisionists) between the formal and the informal will only increase as early stage networks that focus specifically on weapons/warfare quickly become larger, richer, etc.  (this will happen as they are combined with the economic systems of more complex tribal/community “Darknets”).

Spending ever-increasing amounts of money on maintaining our military dominance is a doomed strategy, and this is yet another example of why that is.


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Category: Current Events, Military, War

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

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  1. Brynn Jacobs says:

    No sooner had I posted this when I found another relevant article entitled "U.S. Power Slipping, Analysts Warn." Some key excerpts:

    “We are in the midst of a shift away from American mil­i­tary pre­dom­i­nance towards some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Daggett said, “we’re still for sev­eral years clearly going to be tech­no­log­i­cally pre­dom­i­nant in mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties. How long we’ll have the abil­ity to do all of the above, to project power in every kind, ground forces, mar­itime forces, air forces, I don’t know, but it’s erod­ing slowly over time.”

    The glory days of the American cen­tury were the last 50 years of the 20th cen­tury, he said. The 21st cen­tury is slowly turn­ing into some­thing much more bal­anced in terms of power dis­tri­b­u­tion than most gen­er­a­tions of Americans have ever con­fronted.

    That the world is going through a dis­rup­tive period is hard to deny. The “unipo­lar moment” was just that, but a moment. Greater strate­gic com­plex­ity and uncer­tainty puts pres­sure on pol­i­cy­mak­ers to cor­rectly iden­tify loom­ing chal­lenges, be it the rise of China, pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass destruc­tion or rad­i­cal ter­ror­ism. The prob­lem is that even if pol­i­cy­mak­ers agree on the most seri­ous chal­lenges to U.S. secu­rity, in a period of con­strained resources, the needed tools and options might not be avail­able…

    …the mil­i­tary foun­da­tion of America’s global dom­i­nance is erod­ing. The dif­fu­sion of advanced tech­nolo­gies com­bined with the rise of new pow­ers, such as China, and hos­tile states, such as Iran, will make it pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive in both blood and trea­sure for the U.S. to con­trol areas of vital inter­est, such as the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeat­edly said that the U.S. can­not spend its way out of its national secu­rity chal­lenges. The money is not going to be there. The Congressional Budget Office this week said that just to pay for planned force struc­ture increases, the weapons pro­grams cur­rently on the books and the costs of equip­ping troops at war will require base defense bud­get increases along the lines of 6 per­cent annu­ally. It’s hard to see how that level of spend­ing can pos­si­bly hap­pen with the cur­rent high deficits and sky­rock­et­ing national debt.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It occurs to me that we are witnessing the effect of disruptive technology in action.

    Our military is designed and structured to fight against a similar military, highly mechanized, overly reliant on expensive complex weapons systems and very dependent on extensive logistic support. Simply put, our army is the wrong tool for the job. It's like swatting flies with a .38 snubnose revolver instead of a flyswatter.

    It is time we rethought our overall strategy and introduce some disruptive technology of our own.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    With 7,000 drones in the air now, we are being faced with new question regarding the morality of war, according to P.W. Singer:

    The debate is just starting in Washington. There are parallels to other historical moments when there was no turning back. The automobile in 1909. Computers before 1980. The nuclear bomb in 1940s. This is much beyond an evolution, it's a revolution. This happens very rarely in history. These developments force us to ask questions of right and wrong we never had to think about before.


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