A Patriot missile system stationed in Turkey by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was allegedly hacked by a remote source, according to reports. German magazine Behörden Spiegel said this week that the hacked missile system is owned and operated by the German Army. It was deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border in early 2013, after Ankara requested NATO assistance in protecting its territory from a possible spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The Patriot surface-to-air missile system was initially built for the United States Army by American defense contractor Raytheon in the 1980s, but has since been sold to many of Washington’s NATO allies, including Germany. The Patriot system consists of stand-alone batteries, each composed of six launchers and two radars.
The radars, which are aimed at spotting and targeting incoming missiles, communicate with the launchers via a computer system. The latter was hijacked for a brief period of time by an unidentified hacker, said Behörden Spiegel, adding that the perpetrators of the electronic attack managed to get the missile system to “perform inexplicable commands”. The magazine gave no further details.
Access to the Patriot missile system could theoretically be gained through the computer link that connects the missiles with the battery’s control system, or through the computer chip that guides the missiles once they are launched. Hacking any one of these nodes could potentially allow a perpetrator to disable the system’s interception capabilities by disorienting its radars. Alternatively, a hacker could hypothetically prompt the system to fire its missiles at an unauthorized target.
According to Behörden Spiegel, the attack on the missile system could not have come about by accident; it was a concentrated effort aimed at either taking control of the missiles or compromising the battery’s operating system. Moreover, the sophisticated nature of such an attack on a well-protected military system presupposes the availability of infrastructural and monetary resources that only nation-states possess, said the magazine.
Shortly after the Behörden Spiegel article was published, the German Federal Ministry of Defense denied that Patriot missile systems under its command could be hacked. A Ministry spokesman told German newspaper Die Welt that the Ministry was not aware of any such incident having taken place in Turkey or elsewhere.