(Left) Fire Scout (Right) Fleet Readiness Center East, Civilian maintenance and assessments. (via US NAvy & Wiki commons)
The US Department of Defense has announced the awarding of a $27,883,883(US) contract to Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems to ‘transition’ over to Linux for the Navy’s tactical control systems software for vertical take-off unmanned air vehicle (VTOL) ground control stations. Yes, that’s almost 30 million US taxpayer funded dollars to install the free open-sourced Linux OS (Ubuntu?) on the command and control systems of ground stations that control the Navy’s VTUAV (Vertical Take-Off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). It might be a little more than just an OS refresh.
Raytheon was awarded the no-bid contract as their previous awarding of $5,175,075 to implement the Linux OS is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year. So, why switch over to the open-sourced software? It’s been speculated that the transition has been attributed to the recent malware cyber-attacks in the Middle-East as well as last year’s (2011) attack on the Air Forces drone control systems (Windows based) which was stated to be a credential stealing software that didn’t affect the flight controls but rather the drones surveillance and weapons systems. Apparently the ‘fly-boys’ contracted the malware by playing ‘Mafia Wars’ online where the software was present. It also stands to reason that Linux-based systems have tighter security measures over Windows when it comes to military adaptation. When it comes to handling the open-source nature of the new OS, the government has protection. US-DOD guidelines state "The US government can directly combine GPL and proprietary/classified software into a single program arbitrarily, as long as the result is never conveyed outside the U.S. government, but this approach should not be taken lightly. When taking this approach, contractors hired to modify the software must not retain copyright or other rights to the result."
The military is banking on security through controlling all aspects of the Linux operating systems. Some of the benefits: controlling the privileges of the user by default, software layers/shells help protect the core, and the hand-on community help keep exploits to a minimum. Relying on a non-mainstream OS will only have a finite lasting effect. If the goal in to effect a machine running "X," the enemy will get adept at "X." For the time being, it is a monumental leap in security.
The US Navy currently employ’s only one (unclassified) VTUAV designed by Northrop Grumman, which comes in two versions known as Fire Scout RQ-8A and the MQ-8B. Both designations deploy from air-capable ships such as Carriers and Littoral Combat Ships (close to shore), and they have a range of 110 nautical miles (with a cruising speed of 110 knots) with an on-site hovering time of 5 hours. Both versions of the Fire Scout are equipped with UHF/VHF communications relays and an impressive payload of sensors that include infrared/electro-optical imaging systems and a laser-designator to track and acquire targets. As you might suspect, they are indeed outfitted with the Navy’s APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) missiles that are housed in pods located on the aircrafts sides. The weapons system these VTUAV can pack is impressive, to say the least, but the Navy states that certain safe-guards have been implemented in using the Linux software for their ground stations so that what happened with the Air Force doesn’t happen to them.