17 December 2009

Peeping Toms and New Air Force Toys: UAS Updates

For those of you watching the news today, the big story coming out of both Theaters is the Iranian-backed (or more likely: Iranian-led) interception of data-downlinks from aerial assets. According to the Wall Street Journal, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan used a software program designed in Russia called SkyGrabber that was originally intended to intercept multimedia files over wireless computer networks. This is not surprising. Iranian-supported insurgents have been far more advanced than their Sunni adversaries for quite a while. As we move forward with future generations of unmanned platforms and supporting hardware/software, DoD (and specifically the USAF) must address specific shortcomings in bandwidth and downlink rates.

There has been a lot of news and blog chatter about the “new”
RQ-170 Sentinel over the last week or so, the Air Force’s first stealth and jet-propulsion unmanned platform. This thing is pretty choice. I’m all for strategic assets, but the reality is that there is a tremendous shortage of UAS at the tactical level. The USAF loves the big, cool new toys, and they are cool, but I shudder to think how many Predators could have been bought for the same amount of money that one of these Sentinels cost. Hopefully this serves as a wakeup call to the Army that the Air Force is not nearly as interested in aerial support to tactical-level elements as they think.

My recommendation? Form Tactical UAS Companies inside Special Troops Battalions within BCTs that are autonomous from the current MICOs. Task organize the Company so that each maneuver Battalion gets one UAS Shadow Platoon. Move something like the i-GNAT down to support BCT-level Commanders, and give each Division headquarters its own Army-driven Predator. I’ll expand on this topic with a full post in the near future after additional research. For now I’d like to open this up for discussion with readers. Thoughts?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The media really needs to make the distinction between “hacking” a video feed and intercepting an unencrypted feed. It does not mean that any insurgent has the ability to control a UAV. The real threat of your standard insurgent intercepting a video feed and being able to use it in an effective manner is almost nothing, but if a country such as Iran were to stand up units in their military whose specific purpose is to intercept video feeds and analyze them, now that’s a threat.

    Maybe with this extra media attention, the military will finally begin to address the issue.

    I agree with Josh's assesment that there is a need for further integration of UAV assests in BCTs.

  3. Interesting. I disagree with WH that the real threat is 'almost nothing.' From the insurgents' perspective being able to see what the enemy (us) is interested in and looking at is a very useful piece of information.

    I like JM's idea of pushing UAS down to the tactical level. But how are you going to stop all those airframes from flying into other aircraft?

    Regards, Tripper

  4. Without accompanying location data or training on how to use the video feed I suspect all the bad guys did was succeed in confusing themselves. It's not useful to be looking at a context-less video when you don't know where the platform is, and if you can see a drone circling around your house you're not going to increase your situational awareness a whole lot.

    I don't really see what the collision risk is - we can afford to run unmanned aircraft into each other occasionally. The only real action that I see as being necessary would be to clear out low-flying unmanned systems when low-flying manned systems (like helicopters) roll in.

  5. Tripper:

    Insurgents watching our UAS feeds is definitely an issue. Judging by the reported extent of Iranian activity inside Iraq, it is highly likely this scenario was perpetrated by the Iranians. If so, it makes this report that much more dangerous.

    Airspace deconfliction of these additional platforms would likely cause only minor issues in urban areas where there are a lot of Coalition military units...i.e. Baghdad during the 2007 surge. I can't get into specifics, but deconfliction would be executed through time, altitude and laterally. In this situation, the role of the Brigade and Division Collection Managers becomes that much more important. These Collection Managers would be responsible for ensuring the Commanders Intent or targeting priorities are followed when two subordinate units have the same requested time or block of airspace. I hope that makes sense, if not let me know and I'll try to elaborate in less military-speak. The bottom line is that it's do-able. Everyone may not get what they want all the time, but that's life.