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Israeli Drones Fallin’ from the Skies Like Flies: Third UAV Sabotaged by Hacking

hermes 450 drone shot down

Israeli Hermes 450 drone shot down over Georgia by Russian MIG

Israeli media have announced that the IAF has “lost” (Hebrew and English) yet another of its advanced drones, the Hermes-450, one of the most advanced of its fleet.  This marks the third vehicle lost in a similar manner in the past six months.  A fourth drone was “lost” two years ago and reported in a post I published here.  I note my Israeli source reported originally that the drone was operated by Hezbollah and deliberately crashed into the base.  It’s also possible that Hezbollah or Iran took control of an Israeli drone and crashed it into the base; or that its Israeli controllers crashed it purposely because its navigation system had been hacked.  I’ve previously reported (and here) on the various crashes.

Though Israeli security officials invariably call the cause of the failure a “technical malfunction,” it is only that in the sense that the collapse of the World Trade Center was a technical malfunction.  In other words, these crashes were caused by an enemy hacking into the navigation system and taking control of the drone.

Here is how the air force explains its decision to destroy the vehicles in mid-flight:

IDF officials explained at the time that the decision to down the UAV was made due to concerns that control over the drone would be lost, and it might crash into populated areas.

In actuality, they weren’t in control of them and didn’t know what the Iranians or Lebanese would do with them.  They might crash them into a building or air base inside Israel or they might fly it to Lebanon where they could study its components further.

Israel’s media itself may not believe the lies offered by the IAF.  This is the Walla! headline:

Drones Falling, and with Them, IDF’s Credibility

The article also notes that the continued failures of the Hermes 450 have harmed the reputation of the IDF.  If I were commander of a drone fleet I wouldn’t allow them to fly again till I had a totally new navigational system that couldn’t be penetrated.  Though Israel did ground portions of its fleet after one of the crashes, it apparently didn’t help.  To me, this indicates either IAF hubris or incompetence.  Of course, Iranian cyber-engineers are no slouches as well.

An anonymous Israel source (not the one referenced above) sent me this e mail message today which was either written by a terrific bluffer, or by someone who knows what they’re talking about (my bet is on the latter):

The UAV didn’t crash, the UAV control center lost communication due to heavy interference in the COM link. After few very long minutes at which the re establish comm procedure failed, the CCC (control center commander) ordered the self destruction of the UAV. There was lots of drama as it appeared the UAV had a mind of its own or that someone gained positive control.

As I reported in the past, I don’t know for sure whether Iran or Hezbollah is responsible or some combination, but they are the most likely suspects.  Here is what my source says about the latest attack:

The source of the drone hacks was electronically traced to Lebanon, so either Hezbollah did it with Iranian technology or IRG forces there did it themselves.

In addition, Iran announced recently that it had reverse engineered the same Hermes 450 which was downed yesterday.  If it could reverse engineer it, it can figure out how to hack into the controls as well.  This raises another issue: if it’s true Iran succeeded in copying Israel’s most advanced drone it did so in one of two ways; either it captured a drone in the way I suggest above or it gained access to its technical specs through some sort of espionage.  If it captured a drone, that means there was yet another drone failure in which the Iranians actually succeeded in capturing the vehicle as it did a U.S. drone a year ago.  Iran has boasted it has reverse engineered this vehicle too.

Ironically, the Israeli defense industry publication, IsraelDefense, will host a conference (Hebrew) on drone technology and cyber-issues related to it in a few hours.  One of the key issues this Hebrew language articles indicates will be at the center of the event will be the issue of security, both how Israelis may penetrate the drones of their enemies and protect their own from such hacking.  Given these failures, conference attendees will have their work cut out for them.

The operative phrase here is: what goes around, comes around.  Israel builds these vehicles to spy on its enemies.  It uses them to kill its enemies.  I should add here that my Israeli source renews his claim about the IRG commander Mojtada Ahmadi, who was murdered a few days ago in Iran.  He says the Mossad assassinated him because, among his offenses, was orchestrating the campaign to sabotage Israel’s drone fleet.  I repeat, I haven’t been able to confirm this claim independently and nothing coming out of Iran says anything other than that he was murdered.  So proceed with caution.

Israel’s enemies, in turn, will eventually return the favor once they have mastered the technology.  It’s only a question of when and how.  This is yet another part of the cyberwar drama being played out now between Israel and its enemies.  First you had Stuxnet and Flame, then you had Iranian hackers taking down Saudi oil companies and U.S. banks.  Now we have sabotaged drones and possibly assassinated cyberwar chiefs.  This can go a long way and end up in a very ugly place (and likely will).

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • zz October 10, 2013, 10:09 AM

    “It’s also possible that Hezbollah or Iran took control of an Israeli drone”
    How about providing any proof for that, instead of writing a whole post based solely on your fantasies?

    • Richard Silverstein October 10, 2013, 10:05 PM

      Sure, send me your address & I’ll enclose the video footage of the hack as it occurs. I have both the Israeli command ctr & the IRG command as well. Just specify which one you need. Or would you prefer the audio of the command center discussing the problem with the drone? Just let me know. Happy to provide it to you.

    • Mila October 11, 2013, 7:08 PM

      I thought the meaning of “possible” made it clear that the claim was based on probability, not proof. Then again, maybe English comprehension isn’t your strong suit.
      Either way, the post makes it pretty clear that Israeli drones have been “malfunctioning” and offers possibilities for the causes of said “malfunctions”… so I’m not sure what your problem is. Even if English isn’t your first language, it’s not that hard to work out.

  • Joe Greek October 10, 2013, 11:57 AM

    Horseshit.

    • Richard Silverstein October 10, 2013, 10:16 PM

      @ Joe Greek:

      Horseshit.

      You & your comment stink. Leave your deposits elsewhere.

  • Davey October 10, 2013, 11:04 PM

    What was a drone doing over Georgia (the caption of the pic)??

  • Oui October 11, 2013, 1:08 AM

    Interesting analysis! Amazing how poorly informed some readers are. On YouTube a video showing a Russian MIG-29 shooting down a drone above Abkhazia.

    President Saakashvili says UAS Bought from Israel were Compromised

    (UAS Vision) July 9, 2013 – Georgia made UAS acquisitions from Israeli defence electronics company Elbit Systems under the contract signed in 2007. President Saakashvili said in April, 2008 that Georgia had about 40 UAS, among them medium size Hermes 450. Georgia lost at least three aircraft while they were performing reconnaissance over breakaway Abkhazia in spring 2008; but the Abkhaz authorities claimed at the time that seven Georgian aircraft [drones] were downed in March-May, 2008.

    After WikiLeaks started releasing emails snatched by hackers from a U.S.-based global security analysis company Stratfor in early 2012, an allegation emerged that unmanned surveillance aircraft, which Georgia bought from Israel were compromised after Israel and Russia made a swap – Israel gave Russia the ‘data link’ code for those specific unmanned aircraft; in return, Russia gave Israel the codes for Iran’s Tor-M1 missile systems.

    Russia-Israel Drone Deal, Iran and Georgia the Losers

    August 2008 – Israel recently scaled back its weapons sales to Georgia out of concern that Russia would retaliate by selling more advanced weapons to Syria and Iran. Although the U.S. and France are said to be Georgia’s largest arms suppliers, the Israeli Ministry of Defense reportedly has sold some $300-$500 million in weapons and military training to Georgia over the past ten years.

    See also: Israel’s Mercenaries in Georgia – IDF vets who trained Georgia troops say war with Russia is no surprise (Haaretz).

    L. was hired by Global CST, owned by Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv, and Defense Shield, owned by Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, about a year ago, right after he left the army. He had served as a combat officer in an elite unit, and he got the adventurous offer through his commanding officers.

    • Richard Silverstein October 11, 2013, 2:13 AM

      Thanks, I’d heard about the claim Israeli compromised its own drones, but never saw the actual report. If Russia had access to methods of compromising the drone it’s no surprise some of those secrets would’ve ended up in the hands of Iranian engineers.

      • Oui October 11, 2013, 4:12 AM

        Israel switched sides two days before outbreak of war

        How Russia and Georgia’s ‘little war’ started a drone arms race

        … if Russia was drone-poor and Georgia drone-rich before the conflict, everything changed when Israel switched sides. Less than a year after the war, Russia announced it had bought 12 drones of varying sophistication for $53 million from state defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and in October 2010, the two sides agreed to a $400 million joint venture agreement to produce dozens more. Jamestown Foundation Russia expert Pavel Felgenhauer called the deal “the biggest defense technology transfer deal between Russia and a Western nation since 1945.”

        Russia is expected to continue to expand its drone arsenal, although its attempts at producing quality drones domestically have been largely fruitless and hardliners in Moscow have strongly resisted the military’s limited foreign purchases. Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically underlined the development of Russia’s drone capabilities as a priority in a campaign essay ahead of his election in March and has said that Russia intends to spend $13 billion on drones by 2020 as a part of its military modernization.

        Saakashvili inspects Georgia’s first domestically produced drone aircraft – April 2012

  • Cyrus October 11, 2013, 2:28 PM

    One quick question Mr. Silverstein.
    You are saying: “An anonymous Israel source sent me this e mail message which was either written by a terrific bluffer”

    and just few lines below you are stating: “Here is what my source says about the latest attack:”

    If your source confirms the incident, how can the anonymous email be written by a bluffer ? The two statements can’t logically co-exist.

    Also, if as your source claims someone took control over the UAV, how were the Israelis able to crash it ?

    • Richard Silverstein October 12, 2013, 1:13 AM

      It should be obvious that an Israeli source for a blog post I wrote a year or more ago might be different than an Israeli source who wrote me an e mail message the same day I wrote this post. At any rate, they aren’t the same source. Believe it or not I have a number of Israeli sources.

      how were the Israelis able to crash it ?

      There are different ways of communicating with a drone. There has to be a doomsday method that will cause the craft to self-destruct in case it’s captured. This method would be independent of the normal communications method that was hacked.

      • Cyrus October 12, 2013, 10:15 AM

        From reading your post it seemed that you have received an email from a source, and then you confirmed it with another, isn’t that the case ?

        Do you know any of your sources ? Do you have a way to verify their claims ? How do you communicate with them ? email ? phone ? What may be the interest someone has to leak such information to you ? why you ?

        As for your doomsday method mechanism, wouldn’t it be more efficient to disable all communication and have the UAV fly back to it’s base ?

        • Oui October 12, 2013, 12:16 PM
          • Cyrus October 12, 2013, 1:41 PM

            Oui, Thank you for the link – interesting indeed.
            Please allow me to ask what’s between the questions i asked Mr. Silverstein and the site you linked to ?
            You should always read more then the title. ” Unlike military GPS signals, civilian GPS, signals are not encrypted or authenticated and were never intended for safety- and security-critical applications.”

            Furthermore just to clarify my question: If you have a doomsday procedure that:
            1. Disables attacker communication link and 2. Detonate or crash the UAV wouldn’t it be easier and wiser just to disable the attacker’s communication link and just have the UAV fly to it’s home base ?

        • Richard Silverstein October 13, 2013, 3:18 PM

          I don’t get into discussions of such issues especially not with people I don’t know. To the extent I want readers to understand the internal editorial deliberations of this blog I write about it in the posts. You’ll either have to trust or distrust my sources and research. That’s your call.

  • Noam October 12, 2013, 4:37 PM

    @ Cyrus,
    “As for your doomsday method mechanism, wouldn’t it be more efficient to disable all communication and have the UAV fly back to it’s base ?”
    “Also, if as your source claims someone took control over the UAV, how were the Israelis able to crash it ”

    if there was a way to take control back don’t you think they would have done it? usually crashing the UAV is a last resort action and it is not a decision you make lightly. so i guess they came to a point that they didn’t have a choice.
    if you turn off the communication systems you won’t be able to control the UAV as well as the enemy. most UAV’s (like some missiles) have a self destruct mechanism which is using a different COM and when activated the elevators are fully ‘open’ pointing the UAV’s nose to the ground. once you’ve done that the wind and initial inertia will determine where the UAV will crash.
    your next question might be if there’s another COM why make it just for self destruction? the answer is that there’s a limit to how many fail proof systems you can put on a flying object. each systems adds weight and consumes power. the self destruct mechanism that i just mentioned is fairly simple – doesn’t use much power if any during normal flight conditions and you don’t need to carry an extra explosive or add more parts since it uses mechanisms that are already installed onboard the UAV (although that is also a disadvantage as well).

    ‘just have the UAV fly to it’s home base’
    much easier said than done – it doesn’t work that way, especially under extreme situations such has communication or navigational system mal functioning.

  • Lior432 October 13, 2013, 9:29 PM

    Instead of imagining this whole Post, just check the wind conditions (speed and direction) during that day. You’ll be surprised of what you’ll find.

    • Richard Silverstein October 14, 2013, 12:43 AM

      @ Lior: I have no idea what you’re talking about. I suppose this is meant as an argument of some sort but I’m not sure what it could be.

  • Jo October 14, 2013, 6:28 AM

    Richard, I’m also a user on the Fresh forum, and I’m afraid that the fact that your post was pinned doesn’t necessary means you are being taken seriously but just the opposite. It looks like someone is playing you like a fiddle, I wouldn’t be surprised if this a part of some practical joke with being the butt of it.

    • Jo October 14, 2013, 6:29 AM

      And with that being said, as someone who knows a thing or two about the subject what you wrote is ridicules for so many reasons I don’t wish elaborate on.

      • Richard Silverstein October 14, 2013, 11:56 PM

        @ Jo: That’s a pathetic response. If you know something, prove it. If not, shut up. I’m not from Missouri, but I believe in its motto: the ‘Show Me’ state.

        • Ari Greenfield October 18, 2013, 2:56 PM

          @ Richard Silverstein: Missouri is the Show Me State, you are correct, sir.

        • Max March 6, 2014, 12:08 AM

          Mr. Silverstein, you’re far too smart to be taken by shills like ‘Jo’.

    • Richard Silverstein October 14, 2013, 11:55 PM

      @ Jo: I’m afraid it’s Sirpad who played a practical joke on you-all at Fresh when he falsely claimed the Iran battle plan document was “fictional.” And can you or he explain why he would publish a “fictional” story at a forum that prides itself on breaking scoops and hard news??

      He knows & I know who gave both of us that document and that it’s a very serious document. As for the drone story, the proof is in the pudding as they say: debunk it if you can. I’ve seen no one, including you, raise any serious rebuttal to anything in the post. You’re welcome to try.

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