The Complex

Tracking chips and kill switches for MANPADS

The United States government has so far resisted the pleas of Syrian rebels to equip them with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles (known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS) out of fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to bring down civilian aircraft. However, one idea being floated by ...

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The United States government has so far resisted the pleas of Syrian rebels to equip them with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles (known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS) out of fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to bring down civilian aircraft. However, one idea being floated by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank is to install tracking chips and kill switches in such weapons to prevent them from being used to shoot down civilian planes or the U.S. and allied militaries.

Tucked away in the second half of an essay titled "Syria, U.S. Power Projection, and the Search for an ‘Equalizer,’" Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the United States could use GPS chips (just like the ones in your cell phone that help you find directions to the nearest restaurant) and some sort of kill switch to track and disable MANPADS that are at risk of being used to attack civilians or U.S. forces.

Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

Don’t expect this technology to show up on Syrian battlefields anytime soon. Installing GPS chips in cellphones is one thing, putting them on a MANPAD is another.

"This is not the kind of technology that’s currently in mass production or that is available in a time frame that fits the Syria crisis for 2012," Cordesman’s fellow analyst at CSIS, Aram Nerguizian, told Killer Apps today.

While this tech isn’t ready for prime time in Syria, it may soon appear in similar conflicts that are likely to emerge in the coming years, according to Nerguizian.

"It hasn’t been translated into working prototypes that we’ve seen in public, that doesn’t mean that this sort of thing isn’t going on," said Nerguizian. "We’re looking at a world where you’re going to see a lot of these asymmetric wars popping up."

"There is no appetite in the U.S., in Western Europe, or elsewhere for protracted military conflicts where you have to put boots on the ground . . .  for strategic outcomes that can’t be secured realistically," he added.  

Nerguizian said, however, there still are inherent risks to a technology-based solution: "If you insist on playing a role, and that includes providing military aid, [and] if you plan on providing actual combat systems, you’d better be ready for the consequences [of arming rebels] or at least have some safeguard in place" to prevent misuse.

Nerguizian pointed out the fact that people who get their hands on such weapons could quickly find a way to disable or spoof tracking chips and kill switches.

"Vulnerabilities exist, they tend to be closed fairly quickly, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have a safe and secure system," said Nerguizian. "The technology has evolved in a way so that it could be done, whether or not it can be done in a way that provides 100 percent safeguards [against misuse], that’s the uncertainty."

The United States government has so far resisted the pleas of Syrian rebels to equip them with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles (known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS) out of fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to bring down civilian aircraft. However, one idea being floated by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank is to install tracking chips and kill switches in such weapons to prevent them from being used to shoot down civilian planes or the U.S. and allied militaries.

Tucked away in the second half of an essay titled "Syria, U.S. Power Projection, and the Search for an ‘Equalizer,’" Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the United States could use GPS chips (just like the ones in your cell phone that help you find directions to the nearest restaurant) and some sort of kill switch to track and disable MANPADS that are at risk of being used to attack civilians or U.S. forces.

Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

Don’t expect this technology to show up on Syrian battlefields anytime soon. Installing GPS chips in cellphones is one thing, putting them on a MANPAD is another.

"This is not the kind of technology that’s currently in mass production or that is available in a time frame that fits the Syria crisis for 2012," Cordesman’s fellow analyst at CSIS, Aram Nerguizian, told Killer Apps today.

While this tech isn’t ready for prime time in Syria, it may soon appear in similar conflicts that are likely to emerge in the coming years, according to Nerguizian.

"It hasn’t been translated into working prototypes that we’ve seen in public, that doesn’t mean that this sort of thing isn’t going on," said Nerguizian. "We’re looking at a world where you’re going to see a lot of these asymmetric wars popping up."

"There is no appetite in the U.S., in Western Europe, or elsewhere for protracted military conflicts where you have to put boots on the ground . . .  for strategic outcomes that can’t be secured realistically," he added.  

Nerguizian said, however, there still are inherent risks to a technology-based solution: "If you insist on playing a role, and that includes providing military aid, [and] if you plan on providing actual combat systems, you’d better be ready for the consequences [of arming rebels] or at least have some safeguard in place" to prevent misuse.

Nerguizian pointed out the fact that people who get their hands on such weapons could quickly find a way to disable or spoof tracking chips and kill switches.

"Vulnerabilities exist, they tend to be closed fairly quickly, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have a safe and secure system," said Nerguizian. "The technology has evolved in a way so that it could be done, whether or not it can be done in a way that provides 100 percent safeguards [against misuse], that’s the uncertainty."

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.