Military drones just can’t catch a break.
First, it’s worth noting that I’m a little behind on my television watching, having just caught the premiere of the new season of ’24’ last night. And no, the television show about counter terrorism has never been known for its plausibility. But it has been known for infusing mainstream political debate into its plot lines, and this season (spoiler alert) is no different: We see a drone pilot suddenly realize something’s overtaken his controls, and has shot a missile at his commander on the ground.
Realistic? I’ll get to that in a moment, but it certainly taps into a public discomfort with unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as the general consensus that adversaries can (or have) hack(ed) into our military systems.
Case in point: The Washington Post series that ran over the weekend after a yearlong investigation. The first story was called“When drones fall from the sky,” noting that 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001. The second was called“Crashes mount as military flies more drones in U.S.,” focusing on domestic accidents. (The Post notes at least 49 large drones have crashed during test or training flights near domestic bases since 2001).
Regardless of where you stand, for or against widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles, it creates a bit of a quandary for the companies that build them — Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. among others. Will the Pentagon pull back on drone development? Should the companies funnel more lobbying dollars at the programs?
It reminds me of how the marketing speak around cloud computing changed a bit once security became the primary focus of naysayers. Now that’s all the cloud providers talk about.
But are these concerns about the safety and security of drones valid, or fear mongering?
I asked Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington-based think tank that focuses on the defense industry. In terms of the potential that drone controls could get hacked, he had his doubts.
“Foreign rivals like Russia and Iran occasionally claim they have hacked into the communications links between U.S. drones and their remote pilots, but those claims always turn out to be false,” he said. “If the drones are being controlled through satellite uplinks or the transmissions are encrypted, successful hacking would be nearly impossible.”
As for whether manufacturers should start lobbying the Hill, he indicated it might be too soon for that. For all the attention they get, drones have a long way to go before they play an integral role in military operations.
“Drones are a valuable addition to the U.S. arsenal, but they won’t be a true revolution until they can operate autonomously in contested air space,” he said. “That time is still a long way off. They seem more useful than they really are today because we’ve been fighting enemies lately who lacked air forces or air defenses.”