Lethal Aid: the Case for a Kill Switch

I wrote this eighteen months ago as an op-ed piece, but the international situation had cooled off a bit by then and it wasn’t published.  With the situation in Ukraine and Syria and the ISIL invasion of Iraq, it seems more timely now than ever.

Lethal Aid:  the Case for a Kill Switch

According to their Congressional testimony, multiple members of President Obama’s cabinet recommended that the US give arms to the Syrian rebels.  These recommendations were made with clear reservations about the risks involved, but top officials including the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs still favored arming the rebels.

They recommended aid because the worst and bloodiest wars are inconclusive wars between determined foes, particularly long, drawn-out civil wars.  In such cases, giving one side a substantial advantage in firepower can, paradoxically, often result in a much quicker resolution to the conflict, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

But Obama rejected the recommendation for the same reason that his advisors had reservations about it:  sending arms and munitions into a civil war in the Middle East involves a significant risk that those same weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists.

We’ve seen this in Libya, where many weapons (mostly stolen from Gaddafi’s warehouses, but also including those given to the rebels by outside sources), ended up in the possession of terrorists.

In Syria, we’re already seeing small-arms shipments from the Saudis and Qataris going to men who, while they are fighting Assad currently, are very likely to take their new guns and point them at other targets in the region.  Given recent history and the instability of the region, President Obama’s concerns that any heavier weapons we give to Syrian rebels will end up in the hands of terrorists are well founded.

It is these heavier weapons that would have made the biggest real difference in the Syrian conflict, the ones that would have increased the rebels’ lethality and combat effectiveness the most:  anti-air missiles, RPGs, and other similar systems.

These are, of course, precisely the kind of weapons that President Obama was most worried about.  No US president wants to contemplate the idea of al-Qaeda or other extremist groups using American missiles to shoot down airliners, or using American RPGs to blow up buses full of tourists or limos carrying important leaders.

That’s the basic dilemma in providing “lethal aid”:  the more powerful the weapons, the greater the danger of misuse in the wrong hands.  This is unlikely to be the last time we would like to support the overthrow of a murderous and illegitimate regime, but are inhibited by the real dangers of introducing sophisticated weapons into a fundamentally chaotic situation.

Is there anything that can be done to resolve this dilemma?

The answer seems clear:  we need an array of munitions specifically designed for this situation.  Such weapons should either have an inherently short lifespan after they are issued or be designed with a “kill switch” so that they can be remotely disabled.

I can think of at least half a dozen different basic approaches to doing this, ranging from the relatively crude and low-tech (like a sealed, non-rechargeable power source within the guidance system) to a sophisticated timer or an electronic lock in each warhead.  Each has advantages and drawbacks, and each would require careful development and testing to prevent terrorists from coming up with simple work-arounds.

More to the point, I’m sure the defense industry can come up with better systems than those a layman can imagine.  Even if the Pentagon has looked into something like this before and deemed it unworkable, it’s still worth trying again using modern technology.  What was impossible 10 years ago could now be quite possible.

This wouldn’t be a silver bullet, by any means.  Terrorists who got their hands on these weapons would try very hard to circumvent the safeguards.  Whatever systems were concocted would have to be continuously and aggressively tested in order to find any possible work-arounds before a terrorist does.  But if such safeguards are possible, wouldn’t it be worth the trouble, in order to shorten any Syria-style conflicts of the future without putting working weapons into the hands of terrorists?

As long as there are brutal dictatorships willing to slaughter their own citizens and invade their neighbors, it will clearly be in the interest of the US to be able to support an insurgency without the risk of arming terrorists in the process.

Future presidents deserve better choices and less risky options.


Since this was written, the most extreme fighters in Syria have indeed “take[n] their new guns and point[ed] them at other targets in the region.”  In addition to conquering territory and slaughtering civilians and prisoners, ISIL also overran an Iraqi base and numerous other instillations filled with military equipment, so they are now armed with tanks, humvees, and missiles, not just machine guns and RPGs.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has exploded into a savage civil war with Russian sponsorship and incursions, but the president is once again providing “non-lethal” aid, but refusing to send arms that could make a real difference.

The outbreak of civil war in Mali in 2012 and 2013 underlined these concerns.  As noted above, the Libyan militias found themselves in control of large stocks of munitions, either supplied to them by allies during the revolt or captured during the collapse of the Gaddafi forces.  Many of these militias seized the opportunity to sell what they did not need, with the result that a lot of the weapons and ammunition ended up in the hands of al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Tuareg rebels, leading to an explosion that required French Army intervention with U.S. logistical support.

After dithering for years, the president has finally agreed to send “lethal” aid to moderate Syrian rebels, at least two years too late to prevent ISIL from reaching critical mass, but the nature of those weapons is likely to be extremely limited because of the usual fears about advanced weapons being turned on others.

In short, nothing has changed, except that the basic dilemma has gotten worse.  We urgently need to have real, potent, lethal weapons that we can give to allies, while retaining the capability of disabling those weapons remotely if necessary.

There are several ways we could create weapon systems that can be disabled remotely.  After writing this piece originally, I designed a digitally encoded deadman’s switch that would be reliable, inexpensive, and very tough to defeat.

We need to get that system – or something like it – into production now, so that future administrations have better options.

Edit:  I was pleased to see that Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain wrote a very similar article in the November 2014 edition of Scientific American: The Case for Kill Switches in Military Weaponry.   It’s always good to know that other people are thinking along the same lines!


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