US Army forbids use of Chinese-made drones also flown by IDF
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US Army forbids use of Chinese-made drones also flown by IDF

Israeli military says it's aware of DJI drones' vulnerabilities to hacking, uses them only for non-classified missions

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A soldier in the IDF's Combat Intelligence Corps operates a new drone purchased by the military for company commander. (Screen capture: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A soldier in the IDF's Combat Intelligence Corps operates a new drone purchased by the military for company commander. (Screen capture: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The American military ordered its units to stop using a small, off-the-shelf drone last week, over concerns that the system, made by the Chinese company DJI and also employed by the IDF, was vulnerable to cyberattacks.

According to an internal US Army memo that was leaked on August 2 to sUAS News site, which focuses on drone technology, American troops were ordered to “cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from the devices, and secure equipment for follow on direction.”

Earlier this year, the Israeli military announced that by year’s end, every company commander in its Infantry, Border Defense and Combat Intelligence corps would be given a camera-equipped, collapsible drone made by DJI, known as the “Mavic.”

A Mavic drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI, which the US Army called for its units to stop using in light of hacking vulnerabilities. (ThoroughlyReviewed/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
A Mavic drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI, which the US Army called for its units to stop using in light of hacking vulnerabilities. (ThoroughlyReviewed/ Flickr /CC BY 2.0)

In addition to the order for the smaller drones for company commanders, four of five of the Combat Intelligence Corps’ battalions have already received a more powerful, heavier drone manufactured by DJI, known as the “Matrice.”

The leaked memo cited two reviews of the issue, one by the US Army itself and a second by the US Navy, which were completed in late May and found that DJI drones were susceptible to hacking. The decision to halt their use in the US Army, two months after the reports were filed, was made “due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities,” according to the memo.

When asked if the IDF also planned to halt the use of the DJI drones, the army said in a statement on Sunday that it “takes into account the unmanned aerial vehicles’ limitations and will continue to use them accordingly, for non-classified missions.”

Cpt. Nadav Peretz, head of the Drones Department in the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, made a similar point during an interview with The Times of Israel in May, noting that the drones would only be used for routine missions, not for penetrating deep behind enemy lines for high-level intelligence gathering.

In addition, the army noted that the unencrypted, vulnerable Mavic and Matrice are only a stopgap solution.

“The IDF is working to develop and purchase drones that do not have these limitations,” it said in its statement.

Among these, the IDF is in the process of working with various defense contractors to construct a drone known as the “Tzur,” specifically for the IDF’s needs, Peretz said, but that effort is still in the preliminary stages, with no final deadline in place.

The DJI Mavics are set to be delivered to the army in August and be in the officers’ hands three to four months later, after a training period, Peretz said earlier this year.

It is a type of drone that is also available commercially, costing $999.99 for a basic model. The IDF, however, will be paying a higher price than the average consumer, in the “tens of thousands of shekels,” Peretz said, as it is buying not only the drones themselves, but also tablets to control them, replacement parts, and maintenance and other services from DJI, he said.

Lest he divulge how many companies are in the IDF, Peretz would not say how many drones the military would be purchasing, but said it was in the hundreds, putting the total cost for the project into the millions of shekels.

The small drone will be used by the remaining combat intelligence battalion, the army’s five infantry brigades — Givati, Nahal, Paratroopers, Kfir and Golani — and the newly formed Border Defense Corps, which includes the mixed-gender combat battalions Caracal, Lions of the Jordan, Bardelas and Lavi of the Valley.

In addition to lacking secure transmissions, the drones have limited battery power, cannot fly in turbulent weather, and do not have night vision capabilities, so they can only be used in daytime missions, Peretz said.

While they are not on the cutting edge technologically, the off-the-shelf drones will give relatively low-level commanders access to previously unimaginable amounts of information.

One example is violent protests, a common occurrence in the West Bank. These often involve just a few dozen Palestinian teenagers burning tires and throwing rocks at troops, but can also escalate into larger riots.

Currently, a company commander has only his binoculars and field reports in order to calculate how demonstrators are spread out, how numerous they are, and whether more are on the way.

In this March 7, 2007 photo, the Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP flies during a display at the Palmachim Air Force Base in Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
The Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP flies, during a display at the Palmachim Air Force Base in Israel, March 7, 2007. (AP/Ariel Schalit/File)

Of course, the military already has a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, both large and small. The Combat Intelligence Corps also deploys large balloons that are equipped with cameras and other sensors.

But such assets are not typically available to commanders in the field, due to the comparatively small number of them and the bureaucratic steps required in order to access them. In many cases, this means that only special forces use drones or that infantry and border defense units have to wait hours, Peretz said.

But by year’s end, any company commander will “no longer be dependent upon the logistics” and will be able to see entire field of action “within a couple minutes,” he said.

The combat intelligence officer compared the jump from binoculars to drone to that of moving from a simple telephone to a smartphone.

The company commander will not operate the drone himself, but rather have a team of three soldiers beneath him, who are trained to operate the platform.

One soldier will use a controller and tablet to pilot the drone, while a second will act as a spotter to ensure it is not entering into an area where it could get stuck or shot down. The third soldier will serve as a backup, Peretz said.

The Mavic model will be used by the infantry and border defense units, as well as the Combat Intelligence Corps’ 414th Battalion. It weighs approximately 700 grams (1.6 pounds) and folds up to fit into a pouch, which can be strapped to a soldier’s leg. It has a battery that allows for 20 minutes of flight time, but each drone will come with multiple batteries, allowing for hours of time in the air.

The Matrice, which the rest of the combat intelligence battalions will operate, is larger, weighing in at about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), but can still be easily carried by one soldier. Its added weight allows it to fly in worse weather, and a larger battery lets it stay in the air twice as long as the Mavic. It, too, comes with extra batteries to grant it hours of total flight time, Peretz said.

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