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.
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.