Iran claims to have captured a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel
spy UAV in 2011 by jamming its U.S. data links and
sending false global positioning data to its navigation
system, spoofing the UAV into landing in Iran. U.S. officials acknowledge that a U.S. UAV was lost over Iran,
but have not said how.
Data transmitted through the air “is inherently vulnerable,” Schneider said. The easiest cyber attack on a
UAV probably would be for an adversary to jam the
transmissions to and from it, she said. That would prevent the UAV from sending intelligence back to its
operators, and prevent the operators from sending
commands to the aircraft.
Taking control of the unmanned aircraft would be
harder, she said.
Still, “it’s a vulnerability you have to consider. If the
Iranians are thinking about it, the Chinese are, too,”
Really capable cyber attackers might be able to hack
into a UAV’s communication system or its sensors and
corrupt the intelligence it is sending, said Daniel Gouré
of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. In such an
attack, data about a target that the UAV was tracking
might never make it back to the UAV’s operators, he said,
or critical intelligence might be replaced with false data.
“We hope that these things are encrypted and all the
rest, but that’s an ongoing battle,” Gouré said.
At Northrop Grumman, which manufactures both
Tritons and Global Hawks, “we’re well aware of the Chi-
nese and North Korean cyber capabilities,” said Mike
Mackey, the Triton program manager. “We have very
extensive information assurance and cyber-security
processes and protections within the [Triton] system.”
The Navy declined to answer questions about the
Triton’s vulnerability to cyber attacks.
Because of their 130.9-foot wingspan, Tritons are sometimes compared to Boeing 737 airliners, whose wingspan
is just 13 feet shorter. But any similarity between the passenger jet and the manned spy plane stops there.
At 47. 6 feet long, the Triton is almost three times
shorter than the airliner. The Boeing jet carries up to
WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 46 SEAPOWER / MAY 2015
The Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight May 22, 2013, from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing
facility in Palmdale, Calif. Tritons will carry a payload of high-tech sensors the Navy will use “to detect, identify, track and
assess maritime and littoral targets of interest, and collect imagery and signals intelligence information,” when the systems begin deploying to Guam in 2017.