Boeing’s ‘Wingman’ drone buddies up with pilot-flown jets

It’s already tomorrow in Australia, seemingly in more ways than one. It’s the 27th already, yes, but they’re also working in putting together AI-flown companion jets for their fighters. Why didn’t we think of that? It’s a Boeing Australia joint, but maybe they’ll contract out to the U.S. facilities and we can snake one off the line. I know a guy.

The aircraft, currently in development but scheduled for first flight in 2020, is meant to be a loyal wingman to pilots flying military missions — as you might guess from its name, the “Loyal Wingman.” The official full name is the Boeing Airpower Teaming System,” which acronyms to BATS, but they don’t look or act much like bats so this probably won’t be emphasized.

Essentially these are drones that will accompany other craft, flying in formation and providing defensive capabilities. It’s a force multiplier, which is important for governments that can’t field as many pilots or primary craft (i.e. modern fighters) as countries that have invested more heavily in their air force.

Boeing International’s president, Marc Allen, emphasized (naturally) this international-enablement aspect of the craft in a statement:

This aircraft is a historic endeavor for Boeing. Not only is it developed outside the United States, it is also designed so that our global customers can integrate local content to meet their country-specific requirements. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System provides a transformational capability in terms of defense, and our customers – led by Australia – effectively become partners on the program with the ability to grow their own sovereign capabilities to support it, including a high-tech workforce.

In other words, it’s nice to see some investment outside the U.S., diversifying the portfolio a bit.

A full-scale mock-up was revealed at the Australian National Airshow today:

Looks cool.

The Loyal Wingman is 38 feet long and should have a 2,300-mile range. It will fly independently but will almost certainly remotely as well, and can be equipped with a variety of sensor packages and other goodies. I wouldn’t expect these to get into any dogfights, however. They’re meant to be support, providing recon and surveillance duties that can’t be done from, say, a research or cargo craft.

Given the popularity, in military circles anyway, of drones as solo recon, this kind of “extra pair of eyes” duty makes a lot of sense, and seems inevitable. Whether Boeing’s approach will be the one to take off in governments around the world surely depends on the execution, so we’ll revisit this story in 2020 when the Wingman actually takes flight.

Space Force will be a Marines-like branch under Air Force authority

President Trump is expected to sign into creation the Space Force today, as a special branch of the military overseen by the Air Force Department, according to a report in The Washington Post.

The President’s decision is considered a win for the Air Force and Defense Department broadly, which had argued against setting up an independent military department based on their concerns that it would add new layers of bureaucracy, according to the Pentagon .

Speaking at an event at The Brookings Institute, Air Force chief of staff Gen. David L. Goldfein discussed the decision-making process around the creation of the Space Force — saying that Defense Department officials had discussed a range of options from creating an entire department to establishing a smaller, professional core of personnel, like the Army’s Medical Corps.

With the decision, the Trump Administration is likely to establish a service that looks more like the Marine Corps, which is part of the Navy but unique within it, than an entirely new branch of the military. The Space Force will be led by a four-star general who will have a set on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it will not have a secretary-level post, according to the Post report.

Perhaps more significantly, the Trump administration is reviving the U.S. Space Command, which will be headed by a four-star officer and will coordinate military operations in space.

These days, those operations consist of communications, surveillance and satellite defense, but as plans continue to set up more permanent bases on the Moon and eventually Mars, these efforts could expand to protect personnel as well.

The U.S. disestablished the Space Command in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration. Created in 1985 during the Reagan administration’s second term when the “Star Wars” missile defense program was in full swing, the Space Command was tasked with defining strategic objectives for the U.S. in space, and executing them.

When President Trump announced the new Space Command in December, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said that the surge in threats to America’s space program warranted the resurrection of the program.

“We are shifting to a war fighting culture at the explicit recognition that it is a war fighting domain,” Wilson was quoted by Space News as saying at the time. “Adversaries are developing capabilities to deny us the use of space in crisis or war. The creation of a unified command puts focus on the ability to protect our assets on orbit and prevail if called upon.”

NORAD Santa tracker will stay on even if the government shuts down

For more than 60 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight around the world on December 24.

And it will continue this year, even if there’s a government shutdown, the operations center said Friday in a tweet.

The NORAD Santa tracker is supported by some 1,500 volunteers who staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children (and adults) from around the world, according to NORAD.

People can get live updates through the NORAD Tracks Santa website, which is available in seven languages, over telephone lines and by e-mail. There are even live updates on Twitter.

You can follow along here too.

The tradition all began over a misprinted phone number in an advertisement in the local paper. The ad said, “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number.” When a young child called that December 24, in 1955, it went to the CONAD operations center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Colonel Harry Shoup, who was on duty that night, answered the phone. It wouldn’t be the first child who called that night. Shoup had his operators find the location of Santa Claus and reported it to every child who phoned in, kicking off what would become an annual tradition.

Jeff Bezos is just fine taking the Pentagon’s $10B JEDI cloud contract

Some tech companies might have a problem taking money from the Department of Defense, but Amazon isn’t one of them, as CEO Jeff Bezos made clear today at the Wired25 conference. Just last week, Google pulled out of the running for the Pentagon’s $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract, but Bezos suggested that he was happy to take the government’s money.

Bezos has been surprisingly quiet about the contract up until now, but his company has certainly attracted plenty of attention from the companies competing for the JEDI deal. Just last week IBM filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office claiming that the contract was stacked in favor one vendor. And while it didn’t name it directly, the clear implication was that company was the one owned by Bezos.

Last summer Oracle also filed a protest and also complained that they believed the government had set up the contract to favor Amazon, a charge spokesperson Heather Babb denied. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said last month.

While competitors are clearly worried about Amazon, which has a substantial lead in the cloud infrastructure market, the company itself has kept quiet on the deal until now. Bezos set his company’s support in patriotic terms and one of leadership.

“Sometimes one of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular. And if if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” he said.

“I know everyone is conflicted about the current politics in this country, but this country is a gem,” he added.

While Google tried to frame its decision as taking a principled stand against misuse of technology by the government, Bezos chose another tack, stating that all technology can be used for good or ill. “Technologies are always two-sided. You know there are ways they can be misused as well as used, and this isn’t new,” Bezos told Wired25.

He’s not wrong of course, but it’s hard not to look at the size of the contract and see it as purely a business decision on his part. Amazon is as hot for that $10 billion contract as any of its competitors. What’s different in this talk is that Bezos made it sound like a purely patriotic decision, rather than economic one.

The Pentagon’s JEDI contract could have a value of up to $10 billion with a maximum length of 10 years. The contract is framed as a two year deal with two three-year options and a final one for two years. The DOD can opt out before exercising any of the options.

Bidding for the contract closed last Friday. The DOD is expected to choose the winning vendor next April.

Why the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI deal has cloud companies going nuts

By now you’ve probably heard of the Defense Department’s massive winner-take-all $10 billion cloud contract dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (or JEDI for short).
Star Wars references aside, this contract is huge, even by government standards.The Pentagon would like a single cloud vendor to build out its enterprise cloud, believing rightly or wrongly that this is the best approach to maintain focus and control of their cloud strategy.

Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Heather Babb tells TechCrunch the department sees a lot of upside by going this route. “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said.

Whatever company they choose to fill this contract, this is about modernizing their computing infrastructure and their combat forces for a world of IoT, artificial intelligence and big data analysis, while consolidating some of their older infrastructure. “The DOD Cloud Initiative is part of a much larger effort to modernize the Department’s information technology enterprise. The foundation of this effort is rationalizing the number of networks, data centers and clouds that currently exist in the Department,” Babb said.

Setting the stage

It’s possible that whoever wins this DOD contract could have a leg up on other similar projects in the government. After all it’s not easy to pass muster around security and reliability with the military and if one company can prove that they are capable in this regard, they could be set up well beyond this one deal.

As Babb explains it though, it’s really about figuring out the cloud long-term. “JEDI Cloud is a pathfinder effort to help DOD learn how to put in place an enterprise cloud solution and a critical first step that enables data-driven decision making and allows DOD to take full advantage of applications and data resources,” she said.

Photo: Mischa Keijser for Getty Images

The single vendor component, however, could explain why the various cloud vendors who are bidding, have lost their minds a bit over it — everyone except Amazon, that is, which has been mostly silent, happy apparently to let the process play out.

The belief amongst the various other players, is that Amazon is in the driver’s seat for this bid, possibly because they delivered a $600 million cloud contract for the government in 2013, standing up a private cloud for the CIA. It was a big deal back in the day on a couple of levels. First of all, it was the first large-scale example of an intelligence agency using a public cloud provider. And of course the amount of money was pretty impressive for the time, not $10 billion impressive, but a nice contract.

For what it’s worth, Babb dismisses such talk, saying that the process is open and no vendor has an advantage. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said.

Complaining loudly

As the Pentagon moves toward selecting its primary cloud vendor for the next decade, Oracle in particular has been complaining to anyone who will listen that Amazon has an unfair advantage in the deal, going so far as to file a formal complaint last month, even before bids were in and long before the Pentagon made its choice.

Photo: mrdoomits for Getty Images (cropped)

Somewhat ironically, given their own past business model, Oracle complained among other things that the deal would lock the department into a single platform over the long term. They also questioned whether the bidding process adhered to procurement regulations for this kind of deal, according to a report in the Washington Post. In April, Bloomberg reported that co-CEO Safra Catz complained directly to the president that the deal was tailor made for Amazon.

Microsoft hasn’t been happy about the one-vendor idea either, pointing out that by limiting itself to a single vendor, the Pentagon could be missing out on innovation from the other companies in the back and forth world of the cloud market, especially when we’re talking about a contract that stretches out for so long.

As Microsoft’s Leigh Madden told TechCrunch in April, the company is prepared to compete, but doesn’t necessarily see a single vendor approach as the best way to go. “If the DOD goes with a single award path, we are in it to win, but having said that, it’s counter to what we are seeing across the globe where 80 percent of customers are adopting a multi-cloud solution,” he said at the time.

He has a valid point, but the Pentagon seems hell bent on going forward with the single vendor idea, even though the cloud offers much greater interoperability than proprietary stacks of the 1990s (for which Oracle and Microsoft were prime examples at the time).

Microsoft has its own large DOD contract in place for almost a billion dollars, although this deal from 2016 was for Windows 10 and related hardware for DOD employees, rather than a pure cloud contract like Amazon has with the CIA.

It also recently released Azure Stack for government, a product that lets government customers install a private version of Azure with all the same tools and technologies you find in the public version, and could prove attractive as part of its JEDI bid.

Cloud market dynamics

It’s also possible that the fact that Amazon controls the largest chunk of the cloud infrastructure market, might play here at some level. While Microsoft has been coming fast, it’s still about a third of Amazon in terms of market size, as Synergy Research’s Q42017 data clearly shows.

The market hasn’t shifted dramatically since this data came out. While market share alone wouldn’t be a deciding factor, Amazon came to market first and it is much bigger in terms of market than the next four combined, according to Synergy. That could explain why the other players are lobbying so hard and seeing Amazon as the biggest threat here, because it’s probably the biggest threat in almost every deal where they come up against each other, due to its sheer size.

Consider also that Oracle, which seems to be complaining the loudest, was rather late to the cloud after years of dismissing it. They could see JEDI as a chance to establish a foothold in government that they could use to build out their cloud business in the private sector too.

10 years might not be 10 years

It’s worth pointing out that the actual deal has the complexity and opt-out clauses of a sports contract with just an initial two-year deal guaranteed. A couple of three-year options follow, with a final two-year option closing things out. The idea being, that if this turns out to be a bad idea, the Pentagon has various points where they can back out.

Photo: Henrik Sorensen for Getty Images (cropped)

In spite of the winner-take-all approach of JEDI, Babb indicated that the agency will continue to work with multiple cloud vendors no matter what happens. “DOD has and will continue to operate multiple clouds and the JEDI Cloud will be a key component of the department’s overall cloud strategy. The scale of our missions will require DOD to have multiple clouds from multiple vendors,” she said.

The DOD accepted final bids in August, then extended the deadline for Requests for Proposal to October 9th. Unless the deadline gets extended again, we’re probably going to finally hear who the lucky company is sometime in the coming weeks, and chances are there is going to be lot of whining and continued maneuvering from the losers when that happens.

U.S. Air Force drone documents found for sale on the dark web for $200

You never quite know what you’ll find on the dark web. In June, a threat intelligence team team known as Insikt Group at security research firm Recorded Future discovered the sale of sensitive U.S. military information in the course of monitoring criminal activity on dark web marketplaces.

Insikt explains that an English-speaking hacker purported to have documentation on the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Remarkably, the hacker appears to have been selling the goods for “$150 or $200.”

According to Insikt Group, the documents were not classified but also contained sensitive materials including “the M1 Abrams maintenance manual, a tank platoon training course, a crew survival course, and documentation on improvised explosive device (IED) mitigation tactics.” Insikt notes that the other set of documents appears to have been stolen from a U.S. Army official or from the Pentagon but the source was not confirmed.

The hacker appeared to have joined the forum explicitly for the sale of these documents and acknowledged one other incident of military documents obtained from an unaware officer. In the course of its investigation, Insikt Group determined that the hacker obtained the documents by accessing a Netgear router with misconfigured FTP login credentials. When the team corresponded with the hacker to confirm the source of hacked drone documents, the attacker disclosed that he also had access to footage from a MQ-1 Predator drone.

Here’s how he did it:

“Utilizing Shodan’s popular search engine, the actors scanned large segments of the internet for high-profile misconfigured routers that use a standard port 21 to hijack all valuable documents from compromised machines.

“Utilizing the above-mentioned method, the hacker first infiltrated the computer of a captain at 432d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Reaper AMU OIC, stationed at the Creech AFB in Nevada, and stole a cache of sensitive documents, including Reaper maintenance course books and the list of airmen assigned to Reaper AMU. While such course books are not classified materials on their own, in unfriendly hands, they could provide an adversary the ability to assess technical capabilities and weaknesses in one of the most technologically advanced aircrafts.”

Insikt Group notes that it is “incredibly rare” for hackers to sell military secrets on open marketplaces. “The fact that a single hacker with moderate technical skills was able to identify
several vulnerable military targets and exfiltrate highly sensitive information in a week’s
time is a disturbing preview of what a more determined and organized group with superior
technical and financial resources could achieve,” the group warns.

Google reportedly backing out of military contract after public backlash

A controversial Google contract with the U.S. military will not be renewed next year after internal and public outcry against it, Gizmodo reports. The program itself was not particularly distasteful or lucrative, but served as a foot in the door for the company to pursue more government work that may very well have been both.

Project Maven, as the program was known, essentially had Google working with the military to perform image analysis on sensitive footage like that from drones flying over conflict areas.

A small but vocal group of employees has repeatedly called the company out for violating its familiar (but now deprecated) “Don’t be evil” motto by essentially taking a direct part in warfare. Thousands of employees signed a petition to end the work, and several even resigned in protest.

But more damaging than the loss of a few squeaky wheels has been the overall optics for Google. When it represented the contract as minor, and that it was essentially aiding in the administration of open source software, the obvious question from the public was “so why not stop?”

The obvious answer is that it isn’t minor, and that there’s more to it than just a bit of innocuous support work. In fact, as reportage over the last few months has revealed, Maven seems to have been something like a pilot project intended to act as a wedge by which to gain access to other government contracts.

Part of the goal was getting the company’s security clearance fast tracked and thus gaining access to data by which it could improve its military-related offerings. And promises to Pentagon representatives detailed far more than facilitation of garden variety AI work.

Gizmodo’s sources say that Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud, told employees today at a meeting that the backlash was too much and that the company’s priorities as regards military work have changed. They must have changed recently, since discussions have been ongoing right up until the end of 2017. I’ve asked Google for comment on the issue.

Whether the expiration of Project Maven will represent a larger change to Google’s military and government ambitions remains to be seen; some managers are surely saying to themselves right now that it would be a shame to have that security clearance go to waste.

US military reviewing tech use after Strava privacy snafu

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DJI adds an offline mode to its drones for clients with ‘sensitive operations’

 DJI is working on a “local data mode” for its apps that prevents any data from being sent or received from the internet. The feature will be welcomed by many, but it’s hard not to attribute the timing and urgency of the announcement to the recent ban of DJI gear by the U.S. Army over unspecified “cyber vulnerabilities.” Read More