November 8, 2012: Four years ago it was revealed that terrorists were eavesdropping on UAV video being sent to American ground troops in Iraq. This caused an uproar in the media when the military explained that the video feed was unencrypted, which was unusual and caused much indignation among pundits. The controversy recently reappeared when it was revealed that fewer than half of American Reaper and Predator have since had encryption equipment installed, to prevent anyone from viewing the UAV video. It will be another two years before all large UAVs have encrypted video feeds.
But there was a lot more to the story. First, the ability of the ground troops to get the UAV video feed at all was a hack, a capability that was quickly developed because it was a matter of life and death. Second, the first UAVs didn’t have a lot of payload and encryption gear because it was heavy and bulky. Moreover, the ROVER gear that received the video on the ground did not have crypto because they didn’t see the point of including it since there was none on the UAV end.
Another reason ROVER didn’t have crypto (until recent versions) was that it began in a hurry. Ten years ago a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130, or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the capability of the AC-130 getting video from a Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from Predators and combat aircraft. At that time the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft or the UAV operators (who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link) but not the guys closest to the fighting, on the ground. At the time ground troops had to radio and ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.
The air force went to work and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER 1 was not terribly portable but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later ROVER 2 appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, Rover 3, a 5.45 kg (12 pound) unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service.
With ROVER 5 and Tactical Rover there was encryption. Tactical ROVER is a 440 gram (one pound) hand held device that uses a variety of display devices (like helmet monocle, laptop, PC, or tablet). Tactical Rover was popular with the Special Forces, who often sneaked into hostile territory on foot and need to minimize their weight load.
The original ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. The larger number of ROVER units out there now allows platoon leaders and company commanders access, as well as Special Forces teams and some army or marine ground patrols.
A decade ago army planners did not see anything like ROVER being available until the 2020s. On the down side, the video feed available was unencrypted and no one saw any urgency in hustling to deal with that problem. Once you start working with encryption you have to deal with several other troublesome organizations (like the NSA and military electronics bureaucracies). This can be a real headache and there are always more pressing things to deal with. But now, ground troops getting UAV video feeds in combat zones will have encryption for their video feeds by 2014. There is still a problem in making video feed encryption gear small enough for ground troops to handle. In getting encryption troops will have to carry more gear and have to worry about something else breaking and making life difficult.
The unencrypted UAV video was apparently only seen by Iraqi terrorists equipped with equipment supplied by Iran. This gear was not complicated or expensive but you needed someone who knew about electronics to put it together. There's not many people like that among Islamic terrorists. The Iraqis who had this gear found it scary (revealing how much the Americans were seeing) but not very useful to the terrorists. American intelligence picked up on this but somehow American media never did.