Sunday, June 23, 2013

Weapons that don't work for long would be worth a lot

Put this in the category of blogging about a subject I don't know much about, but one of the worries about arming Syrian rebels is that the weapons will eventually fall into the wrong hands. My naive solution is to increase the odds that the donated weapons aren't durable enough to last much beyond the Syrian conflict or any other conflict when we're supporting one side.

For heavy weapons, having propellant and explosives that degrade fairly quickly over time doesn't sound all that difficult. For both heavy weapons and small arms, use metal parts that rust easily instead of being rust-proof, or maybe pre-stress and weaken components so that they fail after some amount of repeated use. I suppose this creates the risk that a machine gun might fail after two months of use instead of the intended year or so, but I bet they'd still be accepted by Syrian rebels.

Not a perfect solution, and the risk of blowback is still there, but it might help out in the right parts of the world without creating permanent additions to the global weapon supply. Especially given the weapons shipments are happening anyway.

On a related note, I think ammunition control may have better prospects of actually reducing violence in the US than gun control, and limiting the viability of ammunition could also help.

UPDATE:  I like the suggestions in the comments to work degradation into the software for advanced weaponry, although I think it's one more way to cause degradation and not the sole solution.


William Connolley said...

Its a good idea. Though for "heavy weapons" substitute "advanced weapons" or more exactly simply anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles". I think you can forget about quick-rusting machine guns: the world is awash with MG, the rebels hardly need more of those. Unfortunately the AA missiles would be a dream for terrorists and those fighting Israel, which is why the US doesn't want to ship them, so the idea of quick-decaying versions makes sense. Physically decaying is hard to do, but those things need decent brains to work well, so perhaps just put something into the software.

Anonymous said...

You'd need different ordnance for different parts of the world.

The corrosion rate in a generally humid climate will be greater than in a generally arid one. And I don't think I'd want to be using a purposely designed corroding weapon anywhere in the world. The likely increased chances of ammo seizing in the gun on firing and causing the weapon to explode doesn't bear thinking about. And if it's not corrosion but some other failure mode, like poor low-cycle fatigue components, then I wouldn't want to operate such a weapon for much the same reason. Though I suppose as long as the fail-safe design mode is that the trigger mechanism is designed always to fail first...

But imagine the Pythonesque situation of a raiding party getting to their objective and then failing to press home their advantage of surprise because their ordnance passes its use-by date just prior to their using it... and then getting decimated into the bargain.

You'd maybe have to have different ammo supplies for different climates, too, for much the same reason.

And presumably refrigerating/freezing your ammo until "just prior" to intended use would extend the lifetime of any ammo, perhaps almost "indefinitely", anyway, since the rate of chemical degradation could be retarded significantly.

I could go on I think...

Smart weapons, if weapons are a must, with one-time assignment to the initial user (and I daresay that could be circumvented) might be a way.

Now where did I put that 3D printer? Ah! There it is, behind my silica-gel holster.

Cymraeg llygoden

Anonymous said...

I suppose this creates the risk that a machine gun might fail after two months of use instead of the intended year or so

This is hubris. "We are willing to arm you because you will kill our enemies, but only with defective weapons because we have calculated the risk of proliferation against the risk of your death and found your life insufficiently valuable"

If you want to play 'war', play to win. Brown people aren't stupid. And they won't forget half-measures and a failure to commit.

Brian said...

William - .50 caliber machine guns aren't all that easy to get, I know the Libyan rebels were desperate for them early on in their war. They have some (limited) value against aircraft. I agree that lighter assault rifles are everywhere, though.

Cymraeg - yes I thought of the humidity issue too. It's not just different areas of the world but different seasons. My guess is that you'd either design different weapons for different regions, or design a weapon/explosives that lasts through one rainy season.

I suppose if the recipient immediate dehydrates and refrigerates the weapon/ammo instead of using it and then keeps it refrigerated indefinitely, it will last a long time. This is about risk reduction though, not risk elimination.

Corrosion potential/weakening could be done in an area of the weapon that could be inspected, and/or avoided in an area that would blow up on the user.

Anon - yes, you just repeated the risk I described. Beggars can't be choosers, and I think they'll take it. Generally the weapon should work for its intended lifetime, and that should help the people out that we want to help. We could an even put an expiration date on it, like a milk carton.

Anonymous said...

It would only create a thriving black market in replacement parts.

Oh and it also would make potential allies probable enemies of ours.

Good plan, reduce friends and increase crime.


dhogaza said...

"For heavy weapons, having propellant and explosives that degrade fairly quickly over time doesn't sound all that difficult."

Explosives tend to have nasty degradation characteristics. Dynamite degrades into nitroglycerin, for instance, and becomes as unstable as that word implies. This is one reason experts implore people to not handle unexploded ordenance you might run across on old battlefields - the old stuff tends to be much more unstable than when it was young.

I'm with william - software is one possible solution. Encypted in ROM so it's not easily replaced.

How about using GPS to limit the region in which a weapon works?

Martin Vermeer said...

> How about using GPS to limit the region in which a weapon works?

Could work. At the same time you could limit the time span over which it works -- the GPS constellation is a (very expensive) clock.

The problem with software though is that it gets cracked; especially working code. Remember the DVD-CSS debacle

dhogaza said...

"The problem with software though is that it gets cracked"

Nobody in the software security world really believes that things can be made 100% secure. For instance, you can encrypt the software to the extent where in practice, it won't be cracked. But it needs to be unencrypted to run, so given a proper hardware/software operating environment, you can watch unencoded instructions flow through the processor and recreate the binary.

The point generally is to raise the bar high enough so that a sufficient level of sophistication and technology is needed so that your average on-the-street insurgency group isn't going to be able to defeat the safeguards. Nor maybe even your run-of-the-mill intelligence agency.

In reality, sloppiness is the key to breaking stuff. In the commercial web world, despite encryption, strong password protection, restrictive firewalls, and the like we hear of sites being knocked over right and left. Why? The most common technique is "SQL insertion". Google it and weep. Simple defensive software implementation techniques that prevent SQL injection have been known since 1999 (which is when I first ran across SQL insertion attacks on a software project I managed). Yet engineers for banks, Sony, etc fail to take these simple steps.

Likewise, the Polish mathematicians who broke the original 3-rotor German enigma machine were able to do so in part because they discovered that the Germans in Poland, before the invasion, were using the available three-letter key space sequentially (yes, literally "AAA", "AAB", etc). The keys were used to set the three rotors. They still had to reconstruct the rotor mappings but knew with each batch of intercepts what key setting was used.

So I'm fairly confident that any attempt to secure weapons via software or the like would likewise fall victim to what in retrospect will seem like sloppiness :)

EliRabett said...

simple enough to make a critical part of the electronic hardware that oxidizes and fails after a predetermined time. If encapsulated no one will find it.

Thomas said...

USA already did this with the Stinger missiles sent to the Afghan rebels during the Soviet occupation. Those had batteries that ran out after a while and were not designed to be rechargeable.

opit said...

Interesting about Thomas Afghanistan comment. Charlie Wilson's War would not have worked to bog down the Soviets chasing 'Islamic jihadists' ( sound familiar ? ) without the mortars and missiles to harass Hind gunships. Situation-ally high altitude worked against both invaders and aircraft. In Syria al Qaeda is being employed again by black ops to overthrow government ( as in Libya). I don't know if the public has been so out of touch with reality since the Iran Contra arms deals of Ron Reagan.
Iraq gave terrible maintenance and premature wear problems with sand and grit. I expect Syria could generate more of the same.

Brian said...

Read an article about the Stingers in Afghanistan about 10 years ago. It said that after use, the insurgents had to return the launcher/guidance system to get a new Stinger. Despite that, there were still a few loose Stingers that were never recovered, and the expert opinion was that if they were carefully taken care of, they could still be useable 15 years later.

Didn't read about the battery thing, I'd be interested to know more about that. I assume the battery doesn't "run down" from use but chemically degrades in some way over time. I wonder if vacuum sealing could prevent that.

I've also thought it interesting that despite the concern at the time, I've not heard of the Stingers ever being used on civilian aircraft. Also not sure I've heard of any successful use of surface-to-air missiles against civilian aircraft by non-state actors, although I think I've heard of unsuccessful attempts.

Brian said...

Somewhat tangential, but anyone know when's the last time one of those old WW2 bombs actually exploded?

Russell Seitz said...

The German UXB guys are still popping two or three a year in situ , but I think we would have noticed the headlines one went off downtown of its own accord.

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