The internet is awash in a story originating from the Wall Street Journal about how Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq have “hacked” raw feeds from Predator drones in service there using cheap, commercially available software.
While this development is troubling, it is hardly the new development the writers want their readers to believe that it is. Military observers first identified this flaw with the Predator video uplink in 1995 when the US Military deployed the drones in support of UN forces in Bosnia.
The real controversy, then, is not that this flaw in the drone exists so much as that it has existed for at least 14 years and has not been corrected. It is very likely that insurgents from Afghanistan to Somalia have been exploiting this flaw in the Predator design since the moment the military deployed the drones in support of operations there.
This controversy reveals what I see as a deeper problem in the way that the US Military fields weapons systems in modern times. In the Predator raw feed issue, we have a system that the military developed, accepted, and fielded from the very beginning outside the normal acquisition rules. The government designed these rules to ensure that such weapons systems are the best possible defense of American lives, to ensure the best possible expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, and to prevent collusion with the perennial defense contractors whose lifeblood has become taxpayer funding.
The military fielded the Predator with know flaws, the video feed among them, but those flaws are exempt from the normal rules that would force the contractors to fix them because the military circumvented those rules. Further, because the drone and its technologies are still the intellectual property of the contractors that fielded the system because it was never formally delivered to the military as part of an acquisition contract, outside developers are not in a position to develop solutions to these flaws that have not been corrected by the prime contractors.
This kind of problem is not unique to the Predator and has become something of a norm in the procurement and fielding of low-cost, internally developed systems in the military. This is not to say that there are not reasons for fast-track development and rapid fielding of contractor developed systems, but the trend toward avoiding the acquisition process creates trouble just as surely as the military acquisition system helps stymie the development of new technologies.
There are no easy solutions to these kinds of problems. The current military acquisition system desperately needs reform, but the fielding of non-acquisition systems presents a whole new set of serious challenges. One solution that is certain, however, is that the stranglehold that military contractors and acquisition bureaucrats have on all parts of the process must be broken by real and effective changes that ensure someone maintains oversight and that the military is fielding the best possible technology on behalf of the American people.