U.S. military engineers have yet to finish encrypting even half the video feeds broadcast off the unmanned drones that ground commanders depend on to collect intelligence, according to a Danger Room report.
Military leaders found out in 2008 that Iraqi insurgents could download the feeds broadcast from Air Force MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers allowing the militants to watch the same video seen inside U.S. battlefield headquarters. Officials said in December 2009 that the Defense Department would start work to finish encrypting all signals by 2014.
However, Danger Room is reporting that the military is only “30 to 50 percent” of the way done with the job three year later.
The U.S. had known about this vulnerability since it first built the Predator. U.S. Air Force leaders explained that it was a risk they had to take to rush as many unmanned aerial vehicles as possible to desperate ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first known intercept of Predator video occurred in the Balkans when private television satellites picked up UAV feeds. People in Bosnia said it was harder to watch the Disney Channel than pick up live U.S. military feeds.
In 2008, U.S. troops found laptops in Iraq outfitted with a $26 Russian-made software program called SkyGrabber that allowed militants to pick up U.S. UAV feeds quite easily. Even with the evidence of those laptops, U.S. officials claimed that watching the feeds would not help the enemy because they would not know what they were looking at.
Other defense analysts made the point that high value targets could easily know they were being watching if they used that software program and thus tipping them off to moving positions. Ground commanders have often pointed out the benefits to keeping a Predator or Reaper collecting video over a target for multiple days to understand their patterns of life.
As Danger Room points out, the major obstacle to encrypting the feeds is adding the additional weight of the encryption boxes to aircraft sensitive to additional poundage. That is what kept the encryption boxes off the aircraft in the first place. Adding them often means taking other packages off the aircraft.
The Pentagon still has two years left to meet their 2014 goal of encrypting UAV feeds. Meeting that goal would fall in line with the expectations under the new defense strategy that U.S. military leaders can’t expect to operate in future environments where they will control the air so easily.