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China, U.S. Chase Air-to-Air Cyberweapon

The U.S. Air Force is developing network weapons to attack aircraft.

Electronic warfare specialists know the technology is already a double-edged sword, however. The Chinese, a senior service official says, are already working hard on, and in some cases fielding, similar systems to attack high-value aircraft used for early warning, electronic surveillance, command and control, and intelligence.

The Air Force is pursuing “cyber-methods to defeat aircraft,” Gen. Norton Schwartz, the service’s chief of staff, told attendees at the 2012 Credit Suisse and McAleese Associates Defense Programs conference in Washington March 8. But Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the deputy chief of staff for operations, says the same threat to U.S. aircraft already is “out there.”

Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of defense, is pushing both offensive and defensive network-attack skills and technology. “I’m not remotely satisfied” with the Pentagon’s cyber-capabilities, Carter says.

“The Russians and the Chinese have designed specific electronic warfare platforms to go after all our high-value assets,” Carlisle says. “Electronic attack can be the method of penetrating a system to implant viruses. You’ve got to find a way into the workings of that [target] system, and generally that’s through some sort of emitted signal.”

The Chinese have electronic attack means — both ground-based and aircraft-mounted — specifically designed to attack E-3 AWACS, E-8 Joint Stars and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, he says.

Schwartz revealed no other details, but several years ago the service tested the “Suter” system, which used a data stream filled with algorithms to invade an integrated air defense (IAD) system through its antennas. The data-stream, generated by an EC-130 Compass Call electronic-attack aircraft, was able to capture the enemy network’s radar pictures, take over the network as system administrator and tap into dispersed missile launchers through their wireless communication links. Changes to or effects on the output of the enemy IAD system were monitored by an RC-135 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence aircraft.

A fielded version of the system was used by Compass Call aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan to tap into wireless telephone systems used to control improvised explosive devices. However, the EC-130 is a large, slow aircraft that does not fly at high altitudes, making it vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and missile fire. So the task has become engineering a network invasion device small enough to fit into a stealthy aircraft — manned or unmanned, strike or reconnaissance — that can penetrate to a useful tactical range to attack enemy electronics and networks.

New U.S. aircraft like the F-22, F-35, EA-18G and F/A-18E/F now carry new, long-range, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars that are being considered as part of an electronic-attack/network-invasion capability. However, different versions of the AESA arrays are being tailored to better fit the cyber/electronic attack mission. Some will go on unmanned designs like Boeing’s Champ cruise missile, Raytheon’s MALD-J jamming missile and a line of Mk.-82 bomb shapes to carry out the electronic attack role. Other designs will be tailored for the Suter-like, network-invasion task.

Ironically, the AESA arrays that make the new radars and electronic attack systems so formidable in range and power output also are major targets themselves for electronic attack. “From a cyber [attack] standpoint, AESA has introduced new vulnerabilities,” a veteran electronic attack specialist says. “They have a continual wide field of view that can be exploited.”

Such new weaponry would be a boon to the Air Force if it were thrown into a campaign against Syria. “Syria has a much more demanding air defense environment” than Libya, for example, Schwartz says. “We’re watching Syria closely” as well as other places where governments are showing “erratic behavior,” he says.

Boeing illustration of Champ missile

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