Israeli UAV operations face test of cyber strength
Statistics do not always tell the full story but sometimes they reveal a problem. For example, more than 80% of flight hours in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are performed by UAVs – and these are subjected to cyber interference on a daily basis.
IAF operations over Syria have exposed its manned and unmanned aircraft to the cyber capabilities of the Russian forces that are deployed in this country to support President Assad in the civil war. But danger also comes from another source: the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist organisation in Lebanon.
Senior defence analyst Tal Inbar told Shephard that the Iranians have acquired and developed ‘cyber tools’ that can take control of a UAV or its weapon systems.
A senior officer in the IAF Information and Communications Technology (ICT) department, which is tasked with protecting UAVs against cyber attacks, told Shephard: ‘The UAVs and their payloads are sensitive to cyber attacks because they are linked with the ground and other aerial platforms by data links. Everything is digital and this puts all our systems in great danger. The source of this threat can be from far away and it certainly changes the balance of military power in the world.’
The struggle is constant — a source in one Israeli cyber protection organisation described it as a daily competition in which defender and attacker each try to wrest a marginal advantage.
IAF departments, including the flight test centre at Tel Nof airbase, are working with the special units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to create a full set of regulations for protecting operational UAVs from cyber attacks.
‘First we asked the question of how and when – then we went to the manufacturers in a combined effort to understand the vulnerabilities and the possible actions that may minimise them,’ said the IAF ICT officer.
‘Everything is digital and this puts all our systems in great danger’— Senior officer, IAF Information and Communications Technology department
In 2019 over a period of several days, Israel underwent a massive GPS denial attack that affected civil aviation. More recently, in April 2020, Iran was accused of orchestrating an unsuccessful cyber attack on Israeli water supply infrastructure.
The IDF and the IAF did not react to the 2019 attack but it is likely that some defence systems were also affected. GPS denial is part of the EW set of tools, as a means by which hostile forces can inflict damage on an enemy far away.
Israeli sources told Shephard that efforts to harden aircraft and military-grade UAVs against cyber attacks reflect the advanced payload often carried by these platforms. Adversaries in Syria and Lebanon are clearly keen to disrupt, sabotage or shoot down long-endurance, long-range UAVs operated by Israel.
These include the IAI Heron TP (pictured); its MTOW was increased recently by 400kg, enabling it to carry sensors for performing more ‘complicated missions’, according to an IAF source.
Defensive cyber systems on Israeli UAVs are highly classified but it can be assumed that their main function is to protect the payloads and flight computer of the UAV from hostile interference.
Professor Gabi Siboni, head of the military and strategic affairs and cyber security programmes at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told Shephard: ‘When it comes to protecting UAVs, the main concerns are attempts to penetrate their data links and the capability of self-navigation in case of communications loss. This is, of course, in addition to attempts to control the UAV payloads.’
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