Military Aircraft at Risk from Well-intended Technology



Modern tech delivers dilemmas. Technology that supersedes radar can make collisions in our skies a thing of the past, while also broadcasting too much information to the enemy.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has determined that there’s an urgent need for the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address risks associated with new technology that makes tracking military aircraft easy. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out enables anyone to determine an aircraft’s precise location, velocity, and dimensions and follow both real-time and historical flight paths. The FAA wants to replace ground-based radar with space- and satellite-based ADS-B as part of a larger FAA initiative called NextGen. ADS-B Out enables avionics systems to broadcast position, velocity, and altitude to receivers located on the ground, in the air, or in space. ADS-B Out provides air traffic controllers with more precise data (than radar) to keep aircraft safely separated in the national airspace. (To some extent, legacy radar systems in use from 1984 to present can be used to reveal similar data. Hobbyists with commercial receivers share data online that is used to triangulate the position of aircraft.) ADS-B Out is also vulnerable to electronic warfare and cyberattack. Using ADS-B Out, the GAO was able to track different types of military aircraft.

Figure 1: The F-22 possesses a sophisticated sensor suite allowing the pilot to track, identify, shoot and kill air-to-air threats before being detected. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ross A. Whitley)

According to the GAO-18-177 report, “Information broadcasted from ADS-B transponders poses an operations security risk for military aircraft. For example, a 2015 assessment that RAND conducted on behalf of the U.S. Air Force stated that the broadcasting of detailed and unencrypted position data for fighter aircraft, in particular for a stealth aircraft such as the F-22, may present an operations security risk.” Even Captain Obvious can surmise that without modification, ADS-B introduces risks “by providing information to the public that was not previously accessible.” The above January 2018 GAO report concludes that “while DOD and FAA have identified some potential mitigations for these risks, the departments have not approved any solutions.” The FAA deadline for ADS-B implementation in all aircraft is January 1, 2020.

All quotes above are from: GAO Report Urgent Need for DOD and FAA to Address Risks and Improve Planning for Technology That Tracks Military Aircraft, GAO-18-177, https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-177

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