By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) - The German military's aviation safety chief has launched a new initiative against cyber threats, citing research that he said shows hackers can commandeer military airplanes with the help of equipment that costs about 5,000 euros ($5,700).
A defense ministry spokesman told Reuters that development of new "aviation cyber expertise" would cover everything from raising consciousness about cyber threats to technical research projects and equipping aircraft with protective systems.
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State Secretary Katrin Suder had backed the idea, which Major General Ansgar Rieks, head of the German Military Aviation Authority, proposed in a letter in June, the spokesman said.
Rieks said last week that he was unnerved by a demonstration by the government-funded German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Bavaria showing hackers could take control of an aircraft with inexpensive equipment.
"That frightens me. I wrote to the state secretary about it and said doing nothing would amount to gross negligence," he said at a talk at a conference in Bueckeburg, Germany. He said the issue was also a vital concern for civil aviation.
He said military officials needed to focus not just on potential problems with computer software, but should also work to "ensure that airplanes cannot be taken over from the ground, or possibly by a passenger in the air".
A spokesman for the DLR, which has studied aviation cyber security extensively, had no immediate comment on the issue.
Germany's military this year launched a new cyber command that groups cyber units from across the military, which will also involved in the new aviation cyber initiative.
Cyber resilience - making sure that systems can survive a cyber attack and keep functioning - was a major topic during a conference at Bundeswehr University Munich last month, the DLR spokesman said.
Germany's military is also working on the aviation cyber issue within the European Union and NATO, he said.
Concerns about cyber attacks on aircraft and in the broader aviation sector have grown sharply in recent years with a growing barrage of attacks and breaches against other sectors.
Many experts fear that the aviation industry has not kept pace with the threat hackers pose to increasingly computer-connected airplanes.
Rapid adoption of communication protocols similar to those used on the internet to connect cockpits, cabins and ground controls, have left air traffic open to vulnerabilities bedevilling other sectors such as finance and oil and gas.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Louise Ireland)