How Do You Teach an Old Gun New Tricks?

The CIA wants to use fingerprint scanners and GPS devices to make sure Syria's rebels target Assad -- not the West.


After more than three years of civil war in Syria, the Obama administration may soon send shoulder-fired missiles to the rebels fighting the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. But before the first missiles fly, they’ll have to be outfitted with fingerprint scanners and GPS systems designed to keep the weapons from falling into the wrong hands. There’s only one problem: It’s not clear the relatively high-tech security equipment will be compatible with the decidedly low-tech, twenty-year old missiles.

The weapons in question are the awkwardly named man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. The mujahadeen battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s used U.S.-supplied versions of them to shoot dozens of enemy helicopters out of the sky. The beleaguered Syrian insurgents fighting Assad today say they need the missiles to prevent Syrian aircraft from strafing and bombing their positions. The rebels have been steadily losing ground to Assad, and officials in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations argue that the MANPADS may be one of the last, best chances to give the rebels a potentially game-changing weapon.

The White House has considered giving the weapons to the rebels in the past, but held back because of fears that the weapons — which are extraordinarily easy to use — might be taken out of Syria and used against Western airliners. Typically weighing between 28 and 55 pounds, they can be carried by a single person and launched quickly without sophisticated targeting information. The missiles are stored in a tube that’s between four and 6 1/2 feet long — easy to hide in the trunk of a car or in a case.

Fears about the weapons winding up with Islamist militants have led the CIA to look for technological ways of ensuring that they can only be used against Assad’s forces. The agency, according to people familiar with the matter, is considering a pair of options. One would involve installing fingerprint scanners, which would prevent the missiles from being fired by anyone who hadn’t been vetted by the U.S. The other would be a GPS-based system that would render a shoulder-fired missile inoperable if it was taken outside of certain parts of Syria.

Versions of both systems are standard equipment in iPhones and other modern gadgets. Making them standard equipment in the MANPADS would be far harder. The biometric system, for instance, would require the U.S. or its allies to take the fingerprints of authorized rebels and then program them into the devices attached to each missile. That, in turn, would require either smuggling the fingerprint-taking equipment into Syria or getting the rebels to CIA bases in Jordan or Turkey.

The second option would be just as challenging. According to officials with knowledge of the matter, technical experts with the CIA have struggled to get a locking mechanism linked to GPS satellites to work with the older variety of missile launchers. Even when the GPS systems are ready for use, CIA engineers will need to install them on individual MANPADS, a potentially lengthy process that could further slow the weapons’ introduction to the battlefield.

Even if the GPS locks are made to work, some fear that they could still be disabled in the field.

"I think the real issue here is the U.S. government is loath to put these weapons into rebel hands unless the lockouts are completely immune to external compromise, or hacking," said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War and a former Navy helicopter pilot. "Until the U.S. government is satisfied that the lockouts work, and that they are immune from external compromise, it won’t supply these top end weapons to the rebels."

The CIA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The administration’s tortured internal debates over what types of weapons to provide to Syria’s rebels has plagued Washington’ Syria policy for two years and strained relations with key allies in Riyadh and other Middle Eastern capitals. In 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey supported a plan — hatched by CIA Director David Petraeus and backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — to arm moderate Syrian rebels. Despite the near consensus of President Obama’s top national security team, the White House overruled the officials and opted against sending the armaments into Syria.

Saudi Arabia became so frustrated with the inability of the U.S. and other world powers to form a coherent opposition to Assad that last year it gave up a coveted spot on the U.N. Security Council, a move that shocked diplomats and exposed the growing rift between the U.S. and one of its closest Middle East friends.

The MANPADS are emerging as another potential flashpoint. Saudi Arabia has stockpiles of the weapons but is waiting for U.S. permission to send them into Syria, a step the White House has so far refused to take to authorize. The administration, in a nutshell, argues that they’re too dangerous to send into Syria without carefully vetting their recipients and installing robust safeguards.

The State Department said in a 2011 assessment of the weapon that keeping MANPADS away from terrorists is a "major priority of the U.S. government." Since 1975, some 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADs across the world, causing about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths, the assessment found. In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called MANPADS the most serious threat to civilian aviation. His remarks were prompted in part by a terrorist attack the previous year, in which unidentified assailants fired two SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles at an Israeli passenger jet as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed their target but raised the specter of terrorists using a relatively cheap and widely available weapon to cause massive casualties. Fear over an airliner shootdown has prompted a recent online petition calling on Congress to expressly forbid the CIA from ending MANPADS into Syria.

The State Department has cited several other reported attacks of MANPADS since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including a strike on a DHL Airbus cargo jet carrying mail over Iraq in 2003, which was forced to return to an airport in Baghdad, and the shootdown four years later of a Transaviaexport Ilyushin 76TD cargo plane over Mogadishu, Somalia, which killed the entire crew of 11.

MANPADs have also taken down numerous military aircraft, including the United States’. The U.S. decision to supply the weapons to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988 is widely believed to have helped turn the tide of the war there, enabling the Afghan rebels to launch attacks against Soviet aircraft. Some have speculated that they have been used against U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 9/11, including in the August 2011 shootdown of a helicopter carrying 38 people, including 17 U.S. Navy SEALs — the deadliest single day in the war in Afghanistan. A U.S. military investigation found the helicopter — call sign "Extortion 17" — was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, but U.S. Navy SEALs who witnessed the disaster reportedly still believe it could have been a MANPAD, which are more powerful and accurate.

The world is already lousy with MANPADS — there are half a million on earth, several thousand of which are available for sale on the black market, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The Obama administration may find the inability to properly secure the missiles a non-starter and ultimately decline to send the weapons. But Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian o
pposition, said that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been pushing the U.S. to authorize the missile shipments. U.S. government officials, he said, see the use of biometric systems and GPS locks as a way of assuaging U.S. concerns that the weapons not get picked up by terrorists.

If the administration ultimately signs off, only small numbers of MANPADS would be sent Syria at one time, raising doubts about whether such a modest amount of arms would help turn the tide of the war. The technical challenges with the GPS locks may provide a convenient excuse for the administration to avoid having to answer that question and sending the missiles at all.

There’s one bright spot for the Syrian opposition: Even if MANPADS aren’t on the way, the anti-Assad fighters have recently obtained powerful anti-tank missiles. The weapons may not have come directly from the U.S., but experts say they almost certainly arrived in Syria with U.S. approval, possibly via Qatar or Saudi Arabia. The CIA also has a base in Jordan where it has trained Syrian rebels.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe