Can Military Aircraft Be Tracked Online? Exploring the Risks and Realities

By Ivan PetrenkoMay 1, 2024 06:30 AMNews
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Flying gray jet plane
Flying gray jet plane. Source: unsplash

The ability to track military aircraft using civilian technologies like Flightradar24 has raised questions about the security implications of such practices. While websites like Flightradar24 primarily track civilian air traffic using technologies like ADS-B and MLAT, they occasionally capture data from military aircraft, particularly when these aircraft operate in civilian airspace.

Flightradar24, along with other flight tracking platforms such as 360Radar and RadarBox.com, leverages publicly available ADS-B data, which allows for real-time tracking of flights. This system is typically used for better air traffic control and safety, relying on satellites rather than just ground stations. The use of MLAT further supplements tracking, especially where ADS-B coverage might be limited, although it requires the aircraft to be at higher altitudes to function effectively.

The key concern arises with military aircraft that occasionally transmit their locations via these public systems. While generally, military flights can choose to broadcast their position through ADS-B, this is often at the discretion of the aircrew and command decisions. The visibility of military movements can potentially serve both strategic and de-escalative purposes. For instance, revealing the location of air refueling operations can signal military readiness and deter potential aggression.

However, there are inherent risks. The tracking of high-profile military or diplomatic flights can become a security concern, as was noted when the flight carrying US Speaker Nancy Pelosi was monitored by millions during her visit to Taiwan, amidst heightened tensions with China. The transparency provided by flight tracking in this instance was argued to have played a role in preventing escalation.

On the operational side, military aviators have the capability to switch off their transponders to avoid detection when necessary. This practice is particularly crucial during sensitive missions, where stealth and surprise are paramount. For example, combat aircraft engaged in operations often employ a procedure known as MARSA (Military Accepts Responsibility for Separation of Aircraft), which allows them to operate without the typical civilian air traffic control oversight.

Despite the benefits of open data for transparency and safety, the potential for sensitive military data to be publicly accessible is a significant concern. High-profile incidents, such as an AC-130U being tracked over Iraq, highlight the potential dangers of inadvertent data exposure. This has led military strategists and analysts to continuously evaluate the balance between operational security and the benefits of transparency.

As technology advances and more data becomes publicly accessible, the debate continues over how best to safeguard sensitive information while maintaining the beneficial aspects of global data sharing. The challenge remains for military operations to manage visibility in an increasingly connected and monitored world.

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