It must be done: DRM for military weapons

By Frederic Friedel

ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, whatever you call them, is a ragtag proto-nation claiming to be a “caliphate” and consisting of Salafi jihadist militants who follow the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. They are fundamentalists and extremists who have succeeded in spreading hideous terror in surrounding (Islamic) countries, apart from going international and perpetrating proxy terror attacks in Europe, the US and many other parts of the world. They are clearly the scourge of the Middle East.

But ISIS consists of only a few tens of thousands of fighters, surrounded by literally millions of soldiers in Arab countries, in Turkey and Iran. A vast majority of the governments and rulers of these countries would like nothing better than to eliminate the fundamentalists, as would the community of nations worldwide. But everyone is nervous about sending in soldiers, ground forces, to battle the heavily armed ISIS forces on their own terrain.

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ISIS fighters have acquired a host of American Stinger missiles from ravaged Iraqi basis, according to Fox News.

The question arises: where did ISIS get its advanced weaponry? How did they manage to get 75,000 advanced assault rifles, more than 50 advanced mobile gun systems (costing half a million dollars each), 40 Abram tanks, and thousands of armoured military Humvees, to mention just a few items in their inventory. Initially they got most of these US-built weapons from the fleeing remnants of the Iraqi army that the US had left in charge of the country. When ISIL captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014, the retreating government forces left 2,300 Humvees behind, and half a dozen tanks were abandoned when Baghdad forces lost Ramadi. Not to mention tens of thousands of assault weapons, all of which were originally provided to friendly forces by the US military.

Business Insider reported ISIS had seized 55 American M198 Howitzers that cost half a million dollars each from a fleeing Iraqi army. All images from Wikimedia Commons.

It is a well-known problem: Ronald Reagan’s support of the Afghan Mujahideen fighters against the Soviet Union left enough weapons to arm Al Qaeda and then the fledgling Taliban. Currently, in its fight against ISIS and the Assad regime, the US government balks at supplying its allies in the region with American weaponry, mainly because they know that in a few years we might be battling forces armed with exactly those weapons.

So what can be done to ameliorate the situation? I am suggesting a relatively obvious solution: DRM for weapons, for military weapons in particular. Digital Rights Management is an access technology used to control the usage of proprietary hardware and copyrighted works such as software, books, films, etc. If the US military does not know how DRM works they can consult Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Amazon, Netflix or a host of other companies that have vast experience in the field.

Using DRM on military weaponry would entail adding to each weapon some electronic circuitry that can enable or prevent its operation. The weapon is unlocked in a brief Internet session, which requires the user to simply press a button while in an area with WiFi or mobile phone connection. After that the weapon is armed and can be used like any other — for a restricted period of time. After that has elapsed another press of the DRM button is required. This technology could apply to tanks, Humvees, M198 Howitzers, artillery, but also to assault rifles.

ISIS fighters got hold of thousands of American/Iraqi Humvees — did they find the keys behind the sun visors?

The point is these weapons can be switched off, if they fall into the wrong hands. At some stage the ISIS militant will have to press that DRM button and, since the US military knows the weapon is being used by the enemy, it would not be armed. You could go even further: pressing the DRM button would broadcast the current location of the weapon, something that could prove extremely useful to the control center monitoring the use of the military hardware.

I know the objections that will be raised: it is too complicated, the system can be hacked, or people will no longer buy US weapons. The circuitry needed is already available (in every Android phone); the fact that the DRM can be theoretically circumvented does not mean the system is useless — it jusr makes things so much harder for the enemy; and the US is supplying the weapons anyway, bankrolling the costs. Would the Syrian rebels or Kurdish forces whom the US are supporting as allies turn to someone else to get their weapons? Would they do this because of the inconvenience of having to press the DRM button periodically?

With proper DRM in place the US military would find it much easier to equip friendly forces without the fear that the weapons they supply could at some stage be turned against them or their allies.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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