Some very classified, top-secret special forces activity went down in Tunisia last week.
At 1:24pm local time on August 25, a US special operations tactical transport aircraft departed from Tunis and headed southwest toward Tunisia's border with Algeria. The flight, using radio call sign Magma 30, was a C-146A Wolfhound belonging to the 524th Special Operations Squadron of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), based out of Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. The primary mission of the Wolfhound is infiltration and exfiltration of Special Forces and other top-secret operators from prepared and semi-prepared airfields around the world. So it's relatively safe to assume that they were either picking up or dropping of some special forces operators.
A day later, a civil Beechcraft King Air 350ER, registered to Aircraft Logistics Group of Oklahoma, departed from Pantelleria, an Italian island off the Tunisian coast, in support of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), to search for terrorists involved in the March 2015 Bardo Museum attack. The aircraft (tail number N351DY) is a civilian version of the MC-12W, an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) plane operated by the US Air Force. The plane is equipped with a suite of sensors and communication gear, as well as a laser target designator, and is used to "find, fix, and finish" bad guys on the ground. It doesn't take a gigantic leap of imagination to suppose this flight was working to provide reconnaissance for Special Forces folks in the area. Perhaps ones who'd been dropped off a day earlier by the C-146A Wolfhound.
Interestingly, these special operations missions inside Tunisia are evidence of Washington's growing counterterrorism efforts in Africa. Even more interesting than that, however, is the fact that all of this information came from the public website Flightradar24.com.
Flightradar24 (FR24) allows anyone to look up details about planes and to track flights online. FR24 (and some similar portals, each also available on smartphone and tablet apps) relies on a network of several thousand volunteer feeder antennas all around the world that collect and share data they receive from aircraft in their vicinity using something called the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B).
ADS-B is one of the elements of next-generation air traffic control systems in both the US and Europe, a cooperative surveillance system that will one day replace radar. Rather than aircraft being tracked by ground-based radar, the planes themselves will be equipped with special transponders (radio signal transmitters) that broadcast their radio call sign, GPS-calculated position, altitude, and flight path to air traffic control ground stations, enabling precise tracking.
The information broadcast is not encrypted, so it can be received by nearby aircraft to help prevent collisions, and by FR24 receivers — commercial, off-the-shelf ones, as well as home-built kits.
Although the majority of the trackable aircraft are civil airliners and business jets, military aircraft are also equipped with ADS-B-capable transponders. These are usually turned off — or at least, should be — during missions so the aircraft don't advertise their location to potential threats. However, that doesn't always happen in practice, and military aircraft carrying out military missions or covert operations can regularly be tracked online: In March 2011, during the first days of the Libya air war, some of the US and allied aircraft involved in the raids against Muammar Qaddafi's forces failed to turn off their transponders.
Little has changed since 2011. American aircraft over Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan can be tracked or seen. And the US isn't the only country broadcasting real-time locations of its military aircraft. The tendency to leave the transponder turned on is widespread among many air forces including the UK, Canada, and Russia. The US may be unique, though, in its advertising of the location of its Special Operations planes when they're out hunting for terrorists.
This all falls under the umbrella of what's called operational security (OPSEC). OPSEC is basically anything you shouldn't be blabbing about in public; If you want to keep what you're doing a secret, it is considered good OPSEC to not tell everyone what you're doing. So does online flight tracking pose a threat to OPSEC? Most probably, yes.
"The purpose of OPSEC is to keep the mission secure — anything that undermines that hurts OPSEC and the mission," Robert Hopkins III, a former commander of intelligence-gathering aircraft throughout the 1980s and '90s, told VICE News.
The thing is, OPSEC procedures don't always make sense.
"During the 1980s, photography of RC-135s was absolutely prohibited for fear that an image might reveal to the Soviets an operational capability," Hopkins said. "This was insane because the Soviet interceptors that escorted the RC-135s took all the pictures they wanted from any angle that might reveal external changes. Same with the Chinese, Brits, Norwegians, Swedes, and anyone else who might come up to play. In short, the only people who couldn't take pictures of RC-135s were Americans."
The US Air Force doesn't appear all that worried about FR24 and similar services. A recent article on the US Air Force Central Command website, titled "Loose Tweets Destroy Fleets," based on the US Navy's WWII "Loose Lips Sink Ships" campaign, focused only on leakage of information that could put missions, resources, and members at risk, "and be detrimental to national strategic and foreign policies," via social media.
Apparently, exposing the presence of a reconnaissance plane over a target of interest, like the MC-12 reconnaissance plane that can be frequently tracked on FR24 flying surveillance missions over Mosul, is only a possible OPSEC violation if the crew members tweet about it.
Path of a Beech 300 Super King Air 350 and likely MC-12 flight over Iraq. (Screenshot by David Cenciotti via Flightradar24)
"There are times when I think the OPSEC community becomes utterly disengaged from reality, and this is one of them," Hopkins said. "Looking at FR24 on a laptop and seeing a slew of KC-135s with the call sign "Quid" orbiting off Cyprus is a good indicator that a strike package is on its way to Syria, no matter how good the OPSEC of the strike aircraft might be."
There is no evidence that an aircraft has ever been shot down because of FR24, but it's impossible to rule out the possibility that bad guys have moved or remained hidden because they knew hostile aircraft were overhead or on their way. The US Air Force failed to respond to VICE News' request for comment.
Real-time flight-tracking services have been around for some time now, and they have become an extremely powerful tool to investigate, study, and learn about aviation. For instance, these services revealed enormous amounts of information when Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared in March 2014. The services are widely known within the aviation community, but air forces around the world don't treat unencrypted transponder signals in the same way as other details, and while radio communications policies and emission control (EMCON) restrictions are considered when planning combat sorties, the possibility of their transponder signals being picked up barely rate an afterthought.
Still, Flightradar24 is sometimes asked to keep mum.
"Our policy regarding aircraft visibility is that we remove an aircraft from display upon receiving an official request," Flightradar24 spokesman Ian Petchenik told VICE News. "We receive requests from governments on an ongoing basis and promptly honor those requests."
But asking FR24 to keep secrets doesn't prevent other receivers or web-based services from picking up the info. So if you don't want other people to track your plane, the only real countermeasure is to turn off the transponder. It's something the world's air forces know how to do; it is exactly what most spy planes approaching "sensitive areas" have done for decades. And it's not that complex a procedure — hijackers on three of the four planes taken on 9/11 shut off their transponders.
Follow David Cenciotti on Twitter: @cencio4
Photo via DVIDS
Updated to note that Pantelleria is part of Italy.