The US Air Force’s Updated Radar E-3G Planes Are ‘Highly Vulnerable’ to Hacking

The US Air Force’s fleet of E-3 Sentry radar plans, spanning 32 E-3s around the world that possess powerful radar and communication systems are due to get an upgrade from their decades-old computer systems. However, the update with modern computers leaves them vulnerable to hacking.

The E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS) can comb over large areas of territory looking for aerial and maritime enemies while forwarding scout data for friendly forces. The fleet of planes, however, are running 1970s and 80s-era hardware, with outdated computers and electronics. The US Air Force is understandably working on a sweeping upgrade and has already refitted nine E-3s with new modern computers, according to a report by Motherboard.

The computers will be replaced with a Red Hat Linux-based system for the main inflight computer. For workstations, Windows-based systems will be put to use over a local are network. Altogether, 15 crewmembers will be provided with a new user interface and application. These open-architecture computing systems will be easily updateable, with “spare computing power for future capabilities”.  

However, the report points to several ‘deficiencies’ during testing of the systems, including overheating. Most notably, however, a report assessing the E-3G’s system that involved how easily hackable the system and its ground support system was in a real operational simulation, revealed that they “are highly vulnerable to cyber threats and not survivable.” This report led to the Air Force certifying the E-3G as ready for additional operational testing, bringing its trials to a temporary halt.

The ground systems (Block 40/45) upgrade has a simple and vital objective – to enable the Sentry with networking computing capabilities commonly seen in modern home computers and laptops on a network. The downside is that networked computers in an aircraft would leave it vulnerable to hacking.

Quite damningly, the report states:

E-3G version 3.0 and supporting Block 40/45 ground systems are highly vulnerable to cyber threats and not survivable.

A 2014 report estimating R&D along with procurement expenditures on the E-3G program amounted to over $2.6 billion by 2016. These costs could escalate after the upgraded retrofit is temporarily halted, leaving the majority of the Air Force’s E-3 planes and its crews to continue running decades-old computing systems.

Image credit: Wikimedia.