In the trenchesChips may sabotage hi-tech weapons

Published 18 April 2011

Countries producing sophisticated weapon systems do not want these systems to fall into the wrong hands; one idea is to plant a chip in these weapons which would allow the country that supplied them to destroy or disable them remotely; already there are worries that with chip manufacturing moving outside the United States, foreign powers may bribe or coerce chip manufacturers into planting “backdoor” circuits in chips these manufacturers sell American defense contractors

The coalition war in Libya highlights a problem already apparent in wars during the past decade and a half: the risk of sophisticated weapons falling into the wrong hands. There are two ways this can happen. First, some ordnance may remain on the battlefield unexploded, to be collected by the wrong guys; second, weapons supplied to, say, the Libyan rebels may find its way to the other side if rebel position are over-run, or if some members of the rebel camps sell them to the bad guys.

AFP reports that one solution contemplated by countries producing such weapons is to build into them a “kill switch” which will allow their destruction from a distance if they fall into the wrong hands.

The more advanced technology becomes, the more it becomes integrated in networks, the more opportunities there are for attacks,” David Lindahl, a research scientist at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, told AFP.

The idea of a self-destruct of remote-control chip being planted in a sophisticated weapon is not new. During the past decade, as more and more chip manufacturing has moved outside the United State, defense experts began to worry that foreign chip manufacturers may be bribed to plant “backdoor” circuits in the chips they sell U.S. defense contractors, backdoor which would allow a foreign power access to sensitive information, and even the ability to disable or disrupt these weapons if necessary.

There are two ways to look at this [the problem of planting remote control chips in weapon systems]. You build them into your own weapons, or the second way is you unwittingly incorporate them into your own weapons because someone sold you a bad chip,” James Lewis, a cyber expert at the Brookings Institution think-tank and former U.S. official, told AFP.

To guard against possible sabotage, the Pentagon has tried to ensure a secure supply of microchips by certifying some fabrication plants in the United States, known as the Trusted Foundries Program.

Defense manufacturers, however, no longer able to avoid using commercial off-the-shelf products, face growing risks to their supply chain and software, experts said.

The military systems nowadays are not purpose-built from scratch. You have soft systems surrounding them,” Lindahl said.

Fears that foreign-made chips could contain secret codes that would allow an adversary to disable or seize control of a weapon may be overstated, said Lewis. “It’s something you have to be concerned about, that you have to think about when you build the weapon, but it’s harder to do than it looks,” Lewis said.

AFP notes that technology bloggers and experts have long speculated that Israel may have manipulated Syria’s radar when it bombed a nuclear facility in September 2007. Syria’s high-tech air defenses should have detected the Israeli jets but bloggers say the country’s radar — using off-the-shelf chips — may have contained tainted processors with secret “backdoors,” allowing Israel to somehow disable or deceive the radar.

The strike on Syria illustrates how sometimes just the idea of a dangerous microchip is just as effective as the genuine article. “If there is a kill switch, it makes sense the Israelis would use it. If it doesn’t have a kill switch, it makes sense they would spread the rumor,” Lindahl said.