Electronic Weapons: The Down Side Of A Good Hack


January 10, 2010: Recent reports, of terrorists eavesdropping on UAV video being sent to American ground troops, caused an uproar in the media. The video feed was unencrypted, which was unusual, and caused much indignation among pundits. But there was a lot more to the story. First, the ability of the ground troops to get the UAV video feed at all was a hack, a capability that was quickly developed because it was a matter of life and death. Second, the existing military radios did not have the capability to handle an encrypted video signal from UAVs. The rapidly developed Rover ground terminal used an improvised solution. The current radio (JTRS) was developed in the early 1990s, when the technology did not exist to get an encrypted video feed to the compact military radios. A decade later, the technology was there, but the JTRS did not get modified to incorporate it. In response, the air force developers of ROVER simply came up with a workaround (catching the unencrypted video feed on another piece of equipment, and passing it on the a JTRS network).

It all began eight years ago, when a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the capability of the AC-130 getting video from a Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from Predators and combat aircraft. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link), but not the guys closest to the fighting, on the ground.  At the time, ground troops had to radio and ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.

 The air force went to work, and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER I was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER II appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, Rover III, a 12 pound unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service.

 Although ROVER IIIs cost $60,000 each, they addressed dozens of suggestions and complaints from the troops who used earlier ROVERs. Some 700 of these entered service within a year. They were used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and can grab video feeds from army, marine and air force UAVs and bomber targeting pods (which have great resolution, even when the aircraft are 20,000 feet up.)

 The Rover IV appeared in 2005. It  allowed users to point and click on targets to be hit. With Rover III, the guys on the ground could see what they want bombed, or hit with a missile, but had to talk the bombers to it. This happens often, especially when the target is behind a hill or buildings, preventing the ground troops from using their laser range finders to get a GPS location. With ROVER IV, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, is looking at the same video as the ground troops, and can confirm that the indicated target is what is to be hit. This is particularly important in urban warfare, where the building next door might be full of innocent civilians.

 The ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. The larger number of Rover units out there now allows platoon leaders and company commanders access, as well as Special Forces teams and some army or marine ground patrols.

 Without the wartime pressure, it would have taken a decade or more to get ROVER to where it got in only a few years. Special Forces frequently get special equipment made, as they have a "mad money" fund just for that sort of thing. But these new ideas do not always travel so quickly to the rest of the army. A decade ago, army planners did not see anything like ROVER being available until the 2020s. On the down side, the video feed available was unencrypted, and no one saw any urgency in messing with that problem. Once you start working with encryption, you have to deal with several other troublesome organizations (like the NSA, and military electronics bureaucracies). This can be a real headache, and there are always more pressing things to deal with. But now, ground troops getting UAV video feeds in combat zones will have encryption for their video feeds within the year. There is still a problem in making video feed encryption gear small enough for ground troops to handle. In getting encryption, troops will have to carry more gear, and have to worry about something else breaking and making life difficult.




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