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The Secret Life (and death) of Drones

December 20, 2011 

The Washington Post published an interesting article on the intense secrecy surrounding the U.S. drone wars around the world:

Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.

The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

Citing broad powers and secrecy, the U.S. government has basically adopted a ‘trust me’ concept based on the President’s personal legitimacy:

The drone program is actually three separate initiatives that operate under a complicated web of overlapping legal authorities and approval mechanisms.

The least controversial is the military’s relatively public use of armed drones in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently in Libya. The other two programs — the CIA’s use of drones in Pakistan, and counterterrorism operations by the CIA and the military in Yemen, Somalia and conceivably beyond — are the secret parts.

Under domestic law, the administration considers all three to be covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In two key sentences that have no expiration date, the AUMF gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

The U.S. government has fought the release of information sought by human rights and civil liberties groups and does not even acknowledge the existence of its targeted assassination programs:

Some critics of the use of drones are discomfited by the relatively risk-free, long-distance killing via video screen and joystick. But the question of whether such killings are legal “has little to do with the choice of the weapon,” Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said this year in one of several think tank conferences where the subject was debated. “The question is about who can be killed, whether using this weapon or any other.” In a letter to Obama Monday, Human Rights Watch called the administration’s claims of compliance with international law “unsupported” and “wholly inadequate.”

Civil and human rights groups have been unsuccessful in persuading U.S. courts to force the administration to reveal details of the program. In September, a federal judge found for the CIA in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging that the agency’s refusal to release information about drone killings was illegal.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU asked for documents related to “the legal basis in domestic, foreign, and international law for the use of drones to conduct targeted killings,” as well as information about target selection, the number of people killed, civilian casualties, and “geographic or territorial limits” to the program.

When the CIA replied that even the “fact of the existence or nonexistence” of such a program was classified, the ACLU sued, saying that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had made the classification argument moot with repeated public comments about the killings to the media and Congress.

Another aspect of the drone wars that has been kept hidden is its history of defects, malfunctions and accidents.   The apparent capture of a secret U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone by Iran has shined a spotlight on the technological weaknesses of even this most secret and technologically advanced weapon system.  In “The Drone That Fell From the Sky,” Nick Turse writing in Tom Dispatch exposed the flaws and dangers of the U.S. reliance of these new weapons:

A document detailing a U.S. Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones — just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations — as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.

That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology.  They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America’s latest wonder weapons — their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.

Turse also explains how the technological weaknesses, human errors and accelerated tempo of this seemingly low risk form of warfare are having profound negative impacts on U.S. interests, another case of tactical superiority and success resulting in strategic failure:

Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure.  Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.

Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities.  Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years.  For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law — and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population.  The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.

[...]

The recent losses of the Pentagon’s robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less wondrous than Americans have been led to believe.  The United States could turn out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.

 

Iraqi resistance fighters hack U.S. killer drones

December 17, 2009 

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  – $943 billion

Predator Drone  – $4.5 million

SkyGrabber software  -  $26

Watching the drone video feed live  -  Priceless

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DECEMBER 17, 2009

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126102247889095011.html

Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones

$26 Software Is Used to Breach Key Weapons in Iraq; Iranian Backing Suspected

By SIOBHAN GORMAN, YOCHI J. DREAZEN and AUGUST COLE

WASHINGTON — Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.

The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington’s growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Obama administration has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones because they allow the U.S. to safely monitor and stalk insurgent targets in areas where sending American troops would be either politically untenable or too risky.

The stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies.

U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.

In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”

A senior defense official said that James Clapper, the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, assessed the Iraq intercepts at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and concluded they represented a shortcoming to the security of the drone network.

“There did appear to be a vulnerability,” the defense official said. “There’s been no harm done to troops or missions compromised as a result of it, but there’s an issue that we can take care of and we’re doing so.”

Senior military and intelligence officials said the U.S. was working to encrypt all of its drone video feeds from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but said it wasn’t yet clear if the problem had been completely resolved.

Some of the most detailed evidence of intercepted feeds has been discovered in Iraq, but adversaries have also intercepted drone video feeds in Afghanistan, according to people briefed on the matter. These intercept techniques could be employed in other locations where the U.S. is using pilotless planes, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, they said.

The Pentagon is deploying record numbers of drones to Afghanistan as part of the Obama administration’s troop surge there. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversees the Air Force’s unmanned aviation program, said some of the drones would employ a sophisticated new camera system called “Gorgon Stare,” which allows a single aerial vehicle to transmit back at least 10 separate video feeds simultaneously.

Gen. Deptula, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said there were inherent risks to using drones since they are remotely controlled and need to send and receive video and other data over great distances. “Those kinds of things are subject to listening and exploitation,” he said, adding the military was trying to solve the problems by better encrypting the drones’ feeds.

The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn’t know how to exploit it, the officials said.

Last December, U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered copies of Predator drone feeds on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter. “There was evidence this was not a one-time deal,” this person said. The U.S. accuses Iran of providing weapons, money and training to Shiite fighters in Iraq, a charge that Tehran has long denied.

The militants use programs such as SkyGrabber, from Russian company SkySoftware. Andrew Solonikov, one of the software’s developers, said he was unaware that his software could be used to intercept drone feeds. “It was developed to intercept music, photos, video, programs and other content that other users download from the Internet — no military data or other commercial data, only free legal content,” he said by email from Russia.

Officials stepped up efforts to prevent insurgents from intercepting video feeds after the July incident. 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.

“There’s a balance between pragmatics and sophistication,” said Mike Wynne, Air Force Secretary from 2005 to 2008.

The Air Force has staked its future on unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones account for 36% of the planes in the service’s proposed 2010 budget.

Today, the Air Force is buying hundreds of Reaper drones, a newer model, whose video feeds could be intercepted in much the same way as with the Predators, according to people familiar with the matter. A Reaper costs between $10 million and $12 million each and is faster and better armed than the Predator. General Atomics expects the Air Force to buy as many as 375 Reapers.

Write to Siobhan Gorman at siobhan.gorman@wsj.com, Yochi J. Dreazen at yochi.dreazen@wsj.com and August Cole at august.cole@dowjones.com