Pentagon Joins Elon Musk’s War Against Plane Tracking

The U.S. military’s elite special operations command doesn’t want its planes tracked, according to a procurement document.

5760 U.S. Air Force Lockheed MC-130J Commando II Hercules (STRIX36) of the 67th Special Operations Squadron (Night Owls) on its final approach into RAF Marham, near the village of Marham, England, UK on 16 July 2020. (Photo by Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via AP)
U.S. Air Force Lockheed MC-130J Commando II Hercules of the 67th Special Operations Squadron approaches Royal Air Force Marham, England, on July 16, 2020. Photo: Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via AP

A technology wish list circulated by the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command suggests the country’s most secretive war-fighting component shares an anxiety with the world’s richest man: Too many people can see where they’re flying their planes.

The Joint Special Operations Air Component, responsible for ferrying commandos and their gear around the world, is seeking help keeping these flights out of the public eye through a “‘Big Data’ Analysis & Feedback Tool,” according to a procurement document obtained by The Intercept. The document is one of a series of periodic releases of lists of technologies that special operations units would like to see created by the private sector.

The listing specifically calls out the risk of social media “tail watchers” and other online observers who might identify a mystery plane as a military flight. According to the document, the Joint Special Operations Air Component needs software to “leverage historical and real-time data, such as the travel histories and details of specific aircraft with correlation to open-source information, social media, and flight reporting.”

Armed with this data, the tool would help the special operations gauge how much scrutiny a given plane has received in the past and how likely it is to be connected to them by prying eyes online.

“It just gives them better information on how to blend in. It’s like the police deciding to use the most common make of local car as an undercover car.”

Rather than providing the ability to fake or anonymize flight data, the tool seems to be aimed at letting sensitive military flights hide in plain sight. “It just gives them better information on how to blend in,” Scott Lowe, a longtime tail watcher and aviation photographer told The Intercept. “It’s like the police deciding to use the most common make of local car as an undercover car.”

While plane tracking has long been a niche hobby among aviation enthusiasts who enjoy cataloging the comings and goings of aircraft, the public availability of midair transponder data also affords journalists, researchers, and other observers an effective means of tracking the movements and activities of the world’s richest and most powerful. The aggregation and analysis of public flight data has shed light on CIA torture flights, movements of Russian oligarchs, and Google’s chummy relationship with NASA.

More recently, these sleuthing techniques gained international attention after they drew the ire of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man. After he purchased the social media giant Twitter, Musk banned an account that shared the movements of his private jet. Despite repeated promises to protect free speech — and a specific pledge to not ban the @ElonJet account — on the platform, Musk proceeded to censor anyone sharing his plane’s whereabouts, claiming the entirely legally obtained and fully public data amounted to “assassination coordinates.”

The Joint Special Operations Air Component’s desire for more discreet air travel, published six months after Musk’s jet data meltdown, is likely more firmly grounded in reality.

The Joint Special Operations Air Component provides a hypothetical scenario in which special forces need to travel with a “reduced profile” — that is to say, quietly — and use this tool.

“When determining if the planned movement is suitable and appropriate,” the procurement document says, “the ‘Aircraft Flight Profile Management Database Tool’ reveals that the aircraft is primarily associated with a distinctly different geographic area” — a frequent tip-off to civilian plane trackers that something interesting is afoot. “Additionally, ‘tail watchers’ have posted on social media pictures of the aircraft at various airfields. Based on the information available, the commander decides to utilize a different airframe for the mission. With the aircraft in flight, the tool is monitored for any indication of increased scrutiny or mission compromise.”

The request is part of a broad-ranging list of technologies sought by the Joint Special Operations Command, from advanced radios and portable blood pumps to drones that can fly months at a time. The 85-page list essentially advertises these technologies for private-sector contractors, who may be able to sell them to the Pentagon in the near future.

“What will be interesting is seeing how they change their operations after having this information.”

The document — marked unclassified but for “Further dissemination only as directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Joint Capability and Technology Expo (JCTE) Team” — is part of an annual effort by Joint Special Operations Command to “inform and influence industry’s internal investment decisions in areas that address SOF’s most sensitive and urgent interest areas.”

The anti-plane-tracking tool fits into a broader pattern of the military attempting to minimize the visibility of its flights, according to Ian Servin, a pilot and plane-tracking enthusiast. In March, the military removed tail numbers and other identifying marks from its planes.

“What will be interesting is seeing how they change their operations after having this information,” Servin said. From a transparency standpoint, he added, “Those changes could be problematic or concerning.”

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