Tag Archives: Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System

A Barbed Wire for Outer Space

In 2007 a missile launch by the Chinese in 2007 blew up a dead satellite and littered space with thousands of pieces of debris. But it was another Chinese launch  in 2013 that made the Pentagon really snap to attention, opening up the possibility that outer space would become a new front in modern warfare.  This time, the rocket reached close to a far more distant orbit — one that’s more than 22,000 miles away — and just happens to be where the United States parks its most sensitive national security satellites, used for tasks such as guiding precision bombs and spying on adversaries.

The flyby served as a wake-up call and prompted the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to begin spending billions of dollars to protect what Air Force Gen. John Hyten in an interview called the “most valuable real estate in space.”..[I]nstead of relying only on large and expensive systems, defense officials plan to send swarms of small satellites into orbit that are much more difficult to target–GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites..

At the same time..[a]gencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The Pentagon is even developing what is known as the “Space Fence,” which would allow it to better track debris in space.

National security officials are not only concerned that missiles could take out their satellites but also that a craft’s equipment could be easily jammed. Potential enemies could “dazzle” sensors, temporarily blinding them, or deploy tiny “parasitic satellites” that attach to host satellites and do their worst. That could lead to soldiers stranded on the battlefield with little means of communication or missiles that would not be able to find their targets.  “We have considered space a sanctuary for quite some time. And therefore a lot of our systems are big, expensive, enormously capable, but enormously vulnerable,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work.

Pentagon officials say that Russia and China have been developing the capability to attack the United States in space…Pentagon officials fear its satellites could be sitting ducks. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said recently that North Korea has successfully jammed GPS satellites, that Iran was busy building a space program and that “violent extremist organizations” were able to access space-based technologies to help them encrypt communications, among other things.

The Pentagon spends $22 billion on space programs and is investing an additional $5 billion in space efforts this year, including $2 billion for what is known as “space control,” which includes its highly classified offensive programs. Hyten declined to discuss the ways in which the United States is preparing to attack other countries in space. But the United States has had the capability to blow up satellites since 1985, when an F-15 fighter pilot fired a missile into space that took out an old military observation satellite.

Excerpts from  Christian Davenport: A fight to protect ‘the most valuable real estate in space, Washington Post, May 9, 2016

Weapons that Kill Themselves: Arms Control

To help push Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gave Afghan fighters shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Accurate and easy-to-use, the Stingers caused grievous losses. But after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the CIA wanted to discourage the use of the leftover missiles. It got hold of some of those circulating on the black market and booby-trapped them, so that anyone who tried to fire one would have his head blown off. The aim, according to a former CIA official, was to deter both the sale and use of the remaining missiles…

[Today] technological tweaks may be able to help limit the spread and use of small arms, making possible weapons that stop working after a certain period of time, or can only be used by specific people or in particular places. Proponents of such technologies believe they have the potential to succeed where political and legislative attempts at arms control have failed.  Perhaps the simplest approach is the use of technological tricks that shorten weapons’ lifespans. “Self-deactivating” landmines, for example, will not detonate after their battery runs down. They have been adopted by America and some of its allies, but constitute only a tiny fraction of mines deployed around the world. In a similar vein, one proposal is that launchers for shoulder-fired missiles should only work with a uniquely configured, non-rechargeable battery manufactured in a single, tightly controlled plant. This would, in theory, limit the lifespan of the weapons for anyone without access to new batteries. But there would be workarounds. This year rebels in Syria posted video online of a portable missile-launcher rigged to an external power supply for target acquisition. It fired a missile that shot down a helicopter near the Abu ad-Duhur military airbase, south of Aleppo. Similarly rigged missiles have been fired by Hamas militants at Israeli aircraft.

Shoulder-fired missiles, RPGs, mortars, and guided anti-tank missiles could also be made to stop working after a while by engineering their chemical propellants to become inert after a predetermined period, says Patrick McCarthy, head of a UN project called the International Small Arms Control Standards. It is hardly likely that governments would buy perishable weapons of the sort for their own use, but rebel groups might accept them from a sympathetic country, at least if nothing better were on offer. This might also allay fears in the donor country that the weapons might end up in undesirable hands many years later.

A second approach to arms control is to track weapons electronically. Almost all illicit small arms were legally manufactured or imported and were later diverted, often with help from corrupt officials and forged documents. Discreet monitoring and tracking of shipping containers carrying weapons makes it harder to steal or reroute them. Jim Giermanski, a former US Air Force colonel, says America’s Defence Department recently began shipping to Afghanistan, on commercial vessels, containers capable of reporting an opened door, vibrations from a break-in attempt and their location, derived from global positioning system (GPS) satellites. A container can, in essence, “report its own hijacking”, says Dr Giermanski, now boss of Powers International, a company based in North Carolina that helps shippers adopt the tracking technology. It is just now becoming practical and inexpensive enough for wide use, he says.

In some cases it is even possible to track individual weapons by building in a transmitter that regularly signals their precise co-ordinates. This is already done for larger weapons deemed “expensive enough and consequential enough”, says Lincoln Bloomfield, a former State Department official for military and political affairs who served as a special envoy under George Bush junior. Doing the same for small arms would be expensive, but the transmitter could be cleverly attached so that removing it disables the weapon.

In RPGs, a GPS transmitter could be concealed in a grip assembly, says Jean-Marc Anzian Kouadja, executive secretary of the National Commission of Small Arms and Light Weapons at Côte d’Ivoire’s interior ministry. Wrench it out, he says, and you break the trigger mechanism. Governments might be willing to foot the bill to secure their stockpiles from insurgent raids or managers who might otherwise cut deals with gunrunners. But a problem, he notes, is that cyber-savvy rebels might work out how to use the technology to track government troops…

Tracking weapons can be done without satellites, however. Some armies have started using tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, like those found in contactless credit cards and public-transport tickets, which do not require batteries to operate. Instead, when they are passed close to a reader (when passing through a door, for example), the chips absorb enough radio energy to power up and transmit a short burst of identification data. Weapons passing in and out of an armoury can thus be tracked. SkyRFID, a company based in Ontario, notes that its weaponry tags are not damaged by vibration, grime or cleaning solvents. Replacing manual logging makes it harder for armoury staff to pretend munitions sold on the sly are still in stock. (A UN report on improving marking and tracing technologies is due to be published in April 2014.)

Another alternative to GPS transmitters would be to track weapons by outfitting them with the inexpensive SIM cards that allow mobile-phone networks to identify subscribers. A weapon would communicate with nearby mobile-network towers to indicate its position within a rough area, says Mr Kalbusch. And a system of this sort could, in theory, form the basis of a “remote control” feature, allowing weapons to be disabled from a distance.

Kill switches” or “backdoors”, as these features are sometimes known, have so far been associated with expensive weapon systems that must send and receive data to operate. David Kay, America’s most senior arms inspector in post-Saddam Iraq, has noted that one of the reasons why Russia’s best air-defence systems have not been installed in Iran is probably because the Iranians fear that Russia might be capable of countermanding missile launches against certain countries’ aircraft. Now similar “override” systems are being applied to small arms, too.

TriggerSmart, a company based in Limerick, Ireland, has developed a motorised mechanism that can block or unblock the trigger of an assault rifle. It is controlled not by a switch on the weapon itself, but rather by a command sent from an aircraft, satellite, mobile-network tower or radio station. Weighing less than 30 grams (including a standard AAA battery), the mechanism allows an “offending weapon” to be remotely disabled, says Patrick O’Shaughnessy, TriggerSmart’s head of research and development. It costs about $150 to retrofit an existing rifle or build the technology into a new one.

The biggest buyers, Mr O’Shaughnessy reckons, will be armies that work with foreign security forces. American officials have expressed interest. One in six of the Western troops killed last year in Afghanistan was slain in an “insider attack” by a partner in the country’s security forces. TriggerSmart’s technology could allow any member of a unit to block the use of firearms by partner forces. But being expected to use weapons that can be remotely disabled hardly seems likely to engender trust. And it would be impractical to introduce light-weaponry override systems in their current form for large numbers of soldiers or police, says Richard Rowe, a retired US Army major-general who oversaw the instruction and equipping of 550,000 Iraqi security recruits.

Even with further technological advances, few armies will be eager to adopt such kit, Mr Kalbusch says. Governments would worry that their arsenals could be neutered by an adversary, or, more straightforwardly, by the country that supplied the arms. Attempts to mandate use of the technology seem unlikely to succeed, because small arms are made in many countries. And sometimes foreign powers want rebels to steal a government’s weapons and use them against it, as Western-supported opponents of Libya’s Qaddafi regime did in 2011.

Away from the battlefield, other arms-control technologies are being developed to prevent the unintended or unauthorised use of weapons belonging to civilians or police officers. In the decade to 2010, 1,217 American minors were killed in accidental shootings, according to the most recent data from the Centres for Disease Control. And it is not uncommon for a police officer to be shot with a service weapon that has been wrested away.  Accordingly, new “personalised” firearms are being developed which fire only when held by the owner or another authorised person, with the specific aim of preventing a gun owner (and his family or co-workers) from being killed with his own weapon. Because the verification takes place within the weapon itself, its backers note, the technology is more likely to be accepted than remote-override features on military weapons… One example is a .22-calibre pistol called iP1 made by Armatix, a German firm. It only fires if the shooter is wearing a special wristwatch containing an RFID chip, which is detected by the gun. If the gun is more than 40 centimetres from the RFID chip, its trigger locks. Attempting to disable the trigger lock destroys the iP1 “irrevocably”, according to Maximilian Hefner, the firm’s boss. The list price is $1,699.

A similar system for shotguns, called M-2000, has been developed by iGun Technology Corporation, based in Florida. When an RFID chip embedded in a ring is brought near the shotgun, a solenoid switch instantly unlocks the trigger. (Alternatively, the chip could be surgically implanted in the owner’s hand.) The system is seamless, according to Jonathan Mossberg, the firm’s founder. “You pick up the gun, pull the trigger, it goes boom—no thought involved,” he says. The battery inside the gun that powers the RFID reader lasts for more than eight years, and it sounds a warning alarm after six years. It costs about $200 to add to a firearm.

A wristwatch or a ring could be stolen, however, so other smart guns rely instead on biometric characteristics of their owner’s body, such as a fingerprint. The New Jersey Institute of Technology has devised a personalised Beretta pistol. When its magnetic trigger is pulled past a sensor in the trigger guard, a chip is switched on to crunch data from pressure-sensing piezoelectric sensors in the handgrip. Only if they match the owner’s bone geometry and “grip dynamics” does the trigger unlock. All this happens within the tenth of a second it takes to pull the trigger all the way back. The system is not foolproof: on average, around 1% of people with the same hand size will be able to fire a gun personalised for a particular user. But a gun set up for an adult cannot be fired by a child. The US Army is testing the system at an armaments laboratory in Picatinny, New Jersey.

Firearms that are unlocked with a fingerprint reader have been developed by Kodiak Industries, based in Utah, and Safe Gun Technology, based in Georgia. Biomac Systems, a firm based in Los Angeles, California and Ferlach, Austria, is designing a biometric kit to retrofit pistols. Barack Obama has encouraged the development of such technologies and has directed America’s attorney general to review them. Smart-gun technology also received a boost last year when it won the fictional endorsement of James Bond in “Skyfall”. Issued a gun coded to his palmprint that only he can fire, Bond is told that it is “less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement”.

And yet demand looks weak, especially in America, by far the biggest market for civilian firearms: the iGun M-2000 failed to sell at all. Maxim Popenker, an author of firearm reference books based in St Petersburg, Russia, observes that sooner or later a bad guy will shoot a good guy because the latter’s personalised gun refuses to fire due to “gloves, dirt, sweat, blood or stress”. Gun enthusiasts have raised similar objections: personalised smart guns are simply less effective for self-defence, they argue, because of the risk that the safety technology will fail to work properly. Triggers could be unlocked by voice, but this risks betraying the position of someone hiding.

Smart weapons: Kill switches and safety catches, Economist, Nov. 30, 2013, at 11

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Cost per Kill of Drones Armed with Cheap Weapons

Guided missiles are ludicrously expensive. A Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5m, and even the Hellfire, an air-to-ground rocket that weighs a mere 50kg, is $115,000 a pop. In exchange for, say, an enemy tank, that is probably a fair price to pay. To knock out a pick-up truck crewed by a few lightly armed guerrillas, however, it seems a little expensive, and using its shoulder-fired cousin the Javelin ($147,000) to kill individual soldiers in foxholes, as is often the case in Afghanistan, is positively profligate. Clearly, something has to change. And changing it is.

An early sign of this change came in March 2012, with the deployment in Afghanistan of the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) made by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman. The APKWS II is a smart version of the old-fashioned 70mm (2.75-inch) rocket, which has been used by America’s armed forces since 1948. It is also cheap, as guided missiles go, costing $18,000 a shot.  The APKWS II is loaded and fired in the same way (pictured above) as its unguided predecessors, from the same 19-round pods, making its use straightforward. The difference is that it can strike with an accuracy of one metre because it has been fitted with a laser-seeking head which follows a beam pointed at the target by the missile’s operators. This controls a set of fins that can steer the missile to its destination.  Standard practice with unguided 70mm missiles is to use as many as two pods’ worth (ie, 38 rockets, at $1,000 a round) to blanket a target. That means the APKWS II comes in at less than half the cost per kill. It also means that many more targets can be attacked on a single mission.

BAE and Northrop are merely the first to market with this sort of device. ATK, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are all close behind. Meanwhile, the American navy has been working on its own cheap guided missile, the Low-Cost Imaging Terminal Seeker (LCITS), which it tested successfully last year.  The LCITS is another upgraded 70mm weapon, but instead of laser guidance it picks out its targets by their heat signature. Because the operators do not need to keep pointing a laser at the target, they can fire several missiles in quick succession—a useful feature if a ship is being attacked by a swarm of boats.

Smaller precision weapons are useful, too, in circumstances where weight is a crucial factor. Shadow, a drone used by the American, Australian and Swedish armies, is too light to be able to carry Hellfires and is thus, at the moment, restricted to reconnaissance duties. But not for much longer. Shadows are now being armed with a small, still-classified guided missile. This follows the earlier success of arming Hunter drones with Viper Strike, a laser-guided glide bomb weighing 20kg originally developed by Northrop Grumman as an anti-tank weapon and now owned by MBDA. Viper Strike, along with Raytheon’s Griffin, a similar weapon, also arms the marines’ Harvest Hawk, an aerial gunship based on the Hercules transport aircraft. Viper Strike means these aircraft are capable of hitting a large number of targets with great precision from a distance of several kilometres.

The most determined effort to develop a small, cheap guided weapon, though, is the Forward Firing Miniature Munition (F2M2, or Spike missile), from the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California. Steve Felix, the F2M2’s project manager, wanted to make such a weapon for just $5,000, using off-the-shelf components. The result, which weighs less than 3kg and is the size of a baguette, is claimed to be the world’s smallest.  Spike has been tested successfully as a shoulder-launched missile, and also fired from drones. It has an ingenious optical-guidance system—a camera that can either lock on to an operator-designated object or can pick up a laser spot and home in on it. It has a range of 1,500 metres and, though the warhead is too small to damage a tank, it can destroy cars and other light targets far more cheaply than the alternatives.

Precision weapons have already changed warfare radically, even though they have sometimes raised the price of battle. Low-cost guided missiles, often carried on small drones rather than expensive piloted aircraft, will change it further still. When such missiles cost a thousand dollars rather than a million, no target will be too cheap to engage.

Excerpts, Cheap smart weapons: Rockets galore, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 85