Washington: Air Force officials are struggling to wipe out a computer virus that has infected the ground control systems that guide Predator unmanned aerial vehicles and their successors.
The control systems are based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The famous Predators used by the CIA to kill terrorists are controlled from a different location with their own ground stations.
Air Force officials have not grounded any Predators or Reapers as a result of the virus, and operations continue unabated.
The attack is just the latest sign that modern warfare has gone online. “This should not come as a surprise to anybody. As long as remotely piloted aircraft rely on command controlled configurations, interference with the control mechanisms will be an issue.
One way to negate these kind of instances is to move toward more autonomous control mechanisms,” retired three-star general David Deptula, former chief of the Air Force’s intelligence and reconnaissance efforts, said in an email to Breaking Defense. Deptula is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. “Welcome to the world of cyberwar. It’s not just the stuff of Powerpoint and speeches. It’s real.”
Air Force headquarters declined to comment about the virus and whether forced the service to change its unmanned operations overseas.
“We generally do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats or responses to our computer networks,” Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Haynes said in a statement. “We invest a lot in protecting and monitoring our systems to counter threats and ensure security”
Those efforts include “a comprehensive response to viruses, worms and other malware we discover,” Haynes added.
However, this is not the first time these ground control systems have been attacked, we hear.
A spokeswoman at General Atomics, which builds both unmanned aerial vehicles and associated ground systems, deferred all comments to the Air Force.
While Air Force officials seem to have the virus contained, this is not the first time vulnerabilities in the aircraft’s internal systems have been exposed.
In 2009, Afghan insurgents were able to hack into video surveillance systems on board a Predator using commercially-available computer systems. That breach allowed enemy forces to view the live video intel being gathered by the unmanned aircraft in real time.
“As long as remotely piloted aircraft rely on command controlled configurations, interference with the control mechanisms will be an issue,” according to Deptula. One way to close that gap would be be to make unmanned systems more autonomous, he added.
The Danger Room blog first reported the virus attack.