Cordesman: Give Syrian rebels weapons with off switch

A Technological Fix for Safely Arming Syria's Rebels

Strategic studies wonk Anthony Cordesman advocates giving Syrian rebels advanced weaponry that is time-limited or can be remotely shut off to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. It's a Dr. Strangelove of insurgency moment:

At the same time, the risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups-as has the U.S. inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan. The leakage of such weapons to extremist groups in Libya and outside it is a major ongoing threat.

Another clear risk is that extremist networks centered around al Qaeda or the Iranian Al Quds Force could rapidly transfer such weapons far outside the region in which they were originally supposed to be used: allied territory or that of the United States. The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of "incidents" than extremists and dictators if things go wrong.

There do, however, seem to be technological solutions that could largely reduce the risk of transferring such equalizers. As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated. If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.

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.

Given today's solid-state technology, all of these functions could be built into an MANPAD or ATGM. A rocket or mortar might be somewhat more difficult to modify, but building in such capabilities seems possible. The same seems true of remote triggering devices that can be used in bombs or the equivalent of IEDs or in providing antiarmor capabilities like explosively formed penetrators.

I'm not sure how you make these tamper-proof, or produce them fast enough to be useful, or what it means about the future of  warfare by proxy. Imagine weapons with a GPS tracker: you could arm the rebels, no matter how nasty they are, and then track and kill them once they are no longer useful. So not happy with the current government of South Sudan, for instance? Just arm the Lord's Resistance Army with these and let them at it until you change your mind. Handy to see Bashar al-Assad go because it hurts Iran? Give al-Qaeda fighters MANPADs (which are not a hygiene product for men) that can be turned off when they're done wrecking the kind of havoc you don't have too much of a problem with. If they don't sell them to an unknowing PKK fighter who wants to use them in Turkey first! It'll be turned off eventually, right? 

In his last paragraph, Cordesman writes:

One thing is clear. The United States should not remain trapped in the dilemmas it faces in Syria or remain forced into the kind of hollow posturing both U.S. presidential candidates now bring to dealing with this issue. We need practical answers for both the military and political dimensions of what promises to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy," and these are tools that would be cheap and often help do the job.

 Why does it have to be a decade of "expeditionary diplomacy" at all? If the lesson of the last decade of interventionism is that it's better to develop technologies that allow us more control over the mercenaries, proxy groups and occasional loonies we get to do the job, we are in trouble.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.