RAF recruits cyber experts to probe planes' weaknesses

Ben Farmer
Modern aircraft such as the F-35B rely increasingly on networked electronics that could potentially be hacked. - 2016 Getty Images

The Royal Air Force is recruiting cyber security experts to check its aircraft for weaknesses, amid fears hacking attacks on planes will play an increasing role in future conflict.

RAF commanders have been advertising for cyber experts to take jobs checking aircraft and their computer support systems for vulnerabilities.

Modern planes are increasingly reliant on online systems and connected both to each other and to systems on the ground, but these networks could be open to military hackers, aviation experts said.

The RAF has advertised for experienced computer security experts to carry out “cyber vulnerability analysis and investigations on air platforms and air systems” as part of 591 Signals Unit.

RAF sources said the work would include analysing attempts to hack into RAF systems.

Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of Aerospace magazine, said: “It’s a growing battlespace in the aviation arena and as these aircraft platforms get more connected, you want to make sure that they are secure.”

He said Britain’s new F-35B stealth fighter would be sharing huge amounts of data and its systems back at base to ensure the fighter had ready supplies of fuel, parts and ammunition would would also have to be protected. The new plane’s systems run on more than 8 million lines of software code.

He said: “If someone got into [the backend] and rerouted all your spares, why would you have to bomb a runway?

“All this information and systems to keep aircraft operational, these have vulnerabilities that you have to look at.”

Unmanned drones such as the RAF Reapers and the new Protector drone would also need to be protected. He said: “The unmanned aerial vehicles are flown by satellite link. You want to make sure that all those are encrypted so no one can reroute them.”

Modern aircraft are so reliant on networked computer systems that a successful cyber attack on an aircraft could play havoc with its systems.

The US Air Force earlier this year admitted that an attack could potentially scramble navigation aids, make it impossible to identify friend from foe for even inject malware to take over an aircraft’s controls.

A successful hacker could also take control of an aircraft’s life systems, potentially altering the oxygen flow to the pilot.

Mr Robinson said attacks were unlikely to come from cyber criminals, or bedroom hackers, but dedicated military specialists in “near peer” rivals such as Russia or China.

An RAF Spokesman said the new roles were “within one of our specialist defensive units, to assure the protection of the RAF’s aircraft and their support systems.’

591 Signals Unit at RAF Digby near Lincoln has been responsible for securing RAF communications and searching for bugging devices, but sources said it was now evolving to carry out cyber defence work.

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