Giving Away Guns With High-Tech Strings Attached

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria Photograph by Khalil Hamra/AP Photo

The White House recently approved a plan to arm opposition forces in Syria, renewing a fear that looms whenever we plunk weapons into volatile settings: What if they fall into the wrong hands?

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has hinted that safeguards might be on the way. He told a parliamentary panel that certain arms could be “triggered in some conditions, and neutralized in other conditions,” the Associated Press reported.

Fabius wasn’t specific, but American security experts suggest that a Snapchat-esque, self-limiting capability for weapons is not so far-fetched. The technology is made possible by a class of itty-bitty devices called micro-electromechanical systems, aka MEMS, a wide array of technologies distinguished by the fact that they’re tiny, sometimes a fraction of a millimeter. By embedding them in some weapons’ existing technology, it would be possible, for example, to prevent those weapons from firing outside of a certain geographical area, or at passenger aircraft, or after a certain date and time.

“There’s just a virtually unlimited potential,” says Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “You can set an expiration date, you can say a weapon is only going to be usable during certain times of the day—anything you can think up.”

The MEMS universe includes a variety of gnat-size devices: gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, and more. The underlying technologies for these are old hat. What is new are the precision-engineering methods to etch and plate microchips that are now used to scale these technologies down like dollhouse furniture.

This means manufacturers can embed complicated mechanics directly into products’ circuitry while adding almost no weight, volume, energy consumption, or conspicuousness. Although your standard-issue rifle probably won’t benefit from this for some time, many of today’s more sophisticated weapons—such as the portable guided missile launchers that are high on Syrian rebels’ wish lists—hit their targets by employing a host of electronics, including integrated circuits, that could be tweaked with MEMS.

Technologies such as GPS or radio-frequency identification could already be used to track or communicate with weapons, perhaps even telling them how to behave on the battlefield, without MEMS, Harmer says. But those signals might be intercepted or the weapons themselves might be manipulated or hacked. The advent of MEMS, on the other hand, opens the door to making munitions that—because that tiny machinery is integrally woven into their design—can operate only in certain ways, under certain conditions. “It’s not just a software code,” he says. “It’s an actual mechanical function in there.”

One example of this, Harmer suggests, would be to use MEMS in anti-aircraft weapons that could be fired in some places and not others—in Syria, say, and not the West Bank—by making their targeting systems dependent on MEMS sensors that allow the weapon to work only in specific locations.

A bolder idea would be weapons that can shoot at the bad guys but not friendly forces or commercial jets. Harmer says this could, theoretically, be achieved if MEMS-enhanced weapons were married to other futuristic capabilities the military has been developing, such as Blue Force Tracking—a system the U.S. has deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere to identify friend and foe—or the means to identify aircraft by detecting unique heat and radar signatures.

“That’s absolutely the Holy Grail of where you want to go—to be able to program the weapons to shoot only at certain, specific targets,” says Harmer.

This year, Darpa’s Microsystems Technology Office sought designs for a project called Vanishing Programmable Resources (aptly acronymed VAPR) that would, according to the federal solicitation, develop electronic systems “capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner”—or self-destruct.

Some day this research could lead to weapons with built-in cancellation policies, says William Tang, an associate dean for engineering research at the University of California Irvine. He was a program manager for MEMS research at Darpa more than a decade ago, but he is not affiliated with the VAPR project. Darpa’s public affairs office replied to a request for more information about VAPR by saying that weapons systems applications are outside this program’s scope. It declined further comment at this time.

But we may not have to wait long before MEMS make weapons more fleeting. The total market for MEMS devices in military applications is around $1.1 billion and set to reach $2 billion in the next five years, according to Mike Pinelis, the chief executive officer of MEMS Journal. He said MEMS devices are being integrated into smart missiles and munitions, unmanned vehicles, insect cyborgs and mini drones, and sensors for bio-surveillance.

“This is not George Jetson stuff,” Harmer says. “It’s working in laboratories now.” We could see U.S. weapons with MEMS regulating how they function “within a three-to-five-year time frame,” he says.

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