The Complex

Meet China's new-old killer drones

When you think of drones that will likely be used in a conflict between two advanced militaries, you usually imagine brand new, unmanned stealth jets. But China appears to be taking a different approach. It's converting its ancient Shenyang J-6 fighters -- copies of the Soviet Union's 1950s-vintage MiG-19, the world's first operational supersonic fighter -- into unmanned jets. (Yes, China is also develping brand new drones.)

Converting old fighters into remote controlled jets is nothing new. The U.S. has used retired fighters as unmanned target practice drones for decades. However, China plans to use the old fighters as ground attack jets. We've been hearing about the unmanned J-6 project for a long time now. What's caught people's attention is that China has apparently massed dozens of the jets at airbases in Fujilan province, close to, you guessed it, Taiwan.

While the fighters may not be the most advanced drones in the world and no knows how accurate their weapons would be, they would pose one more challenge to Taiwanese air defense in the event of war with the mainland. Imagine waves of the unmanned jets tying up air defenses while more advanced jets and missiles attack.  As this article from 2010 points out, the J-6 drones could be used in conjunction with the Israeli-made Harpy UAVs that are specifically designed to defeat ground-based radars to "punch holes" in the island's air defenses.

Converting manned fighters into drones isn't hard. The U.S. even converted B-17s Flying Fortress into unmanned plane to collected radiation samples from the air over the nuclear blasts during the Operations Crossroads nuclear bomb tests in 1946. In the case of the Air Force's QF-4 Phantom drones, the jets' guns are removed and black boxes connected to the flight control systems are installed in the vacant gun compartments -- allowing ground operators to control the planes. Want to learn how the U.S. converts its old fighters into drones? Click here.

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National Security

The Pentagon is expanding its smartphone for spies program

While the rest of the DC press corps is talking about Chuck Hagel's qualifications to be the next defense secretary, Killer Apps is lucky enough to be writing about smart phones. Secret smart phones, that is. That's right, the National Security Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) are set to expand the program that gives government officials Android-based smart phones and tablets capable of handling classified information.

"The Fishbowl pilot is continuing. There is a small number of devices that have been issued primarily to organizations like the White House Communications Agency so they can evaluate them as potential devices for national leaders," David Mihelcic, DISA's chief technology officer, told Killer Apps after a speech in Arlington, Va. "But really Fishbowl is going to cease to exist, and it will be subsumed by [a program called] Commercial for Classified Solutions."

DISA is working to improve on technology developed for the Fishbowl project -- which Killer Apps reported on in September -- meant to provide everyone from senior government officials to spies with commercially based smart phones and tablets capable of handling supersensitive information.

"Initially, you're going to see Android-based [devices] because it is essentially extending the Fishbowl" effort, said Mihelcic. "But the goal moving forward is to be vendor-agnostic and operating system-agnostic, but the vendors and the OS's have to meet NSA's security requirements."

Once DISA finds vendors that can meet the NSA's requirements for handling classified info, DISA will push the devices to a trial group of 50 to 100 DOD personnel in the third quarter of fiscal year 2013 with the ultimate goal of replacing the roughly 5,000 very expensive DOD cell phones that are specially designed to handle secrets.

"We say nominally that we need to be able to support that number, but if this scales, you could see the number going into the hundreds of thousands," said Mihelcic.

Moving to these commercially based devices will allow DOD to field them faster and give users improved ability to use a number of apps "with a rich user experience" for handling classified information, according to Mihelcic.