April 09, 2003
Caveat Emptor

Yesterday's SharkBlog includes an interesting little item:

Buyer Beware: Marketplace Radio reported that the intelligence which may have betrayed Saddam's location was obtained by monitoring a "secure" radio system -- which the British sold Iraq several years ago, and which the coalition forces somehow had the ability to decrypt.

I like that "somehow". I've often wondered whether airplanes and other complex weapons systems sold to foreign countries have secret gadgets attached that could disable them if necessary. If not, they should. Suppose the U.S. sells a few dozen advanced fighter aircraft to, say, Egypt or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. What happens if a revolution or coup d'état puts them in the wrong hands, as happened when the Shah of Iran was deposed? It would be nice to be able to send a coded radio signal that would permanently disable the weapons systems or even the whole airplane. Causing an airplane to crash in flight would be a bit severe, though it would preserve some deniability. Even triggering the ejection seat on command could injure innocent bystanders. But surely a tiny bomb designed to fry all the weapons-control circuits beyond any possibility of repair could be designed and tucked away inside some innocent-looking part. Of course, this method could only be used to disable an entire air force once, after which sales would plummet as word got around.

Can we do this? Have we? Have other manufacturers of sophisticated military hardware? I have no idea, but I certainly hope so.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 09, 2003 11:05 PM

You mentioned the Iranian revolution...I remember reading somewhere that the Iranians had to hire American techs to service their planes, and when the revolution hit, said techs sabotaged the planes before leaving Iran. I'll hunt for a link with hard info.

Posted by: Xenophon on April 10, 2003 03:36 PM

I think David Kahn mentions in "The Codebreakers" that the UK assisted smaller nations with cryptographic needs by supplying them with captured Enigma machines and the necessary training to operate them 'properly'.
You might also noted the careful use of quotes.


Posted by: J.M. Heinrichs on April 10, 2003 10:38 PM

It's standard practice for the US (and was for the Soviets too) to install a simplified version of the electronics in any aircraft sold to the third world. It cuts the price some, but it keeps some secrets safe, and just incidentally does make it easier to shoot those airplanes down if needed. I've always wondered how much of the Israelis advantage in air-to-air combat was because they were flying fully-capable aircraft (whether because we sold them the real thing, or because they are technically capable enough to develop it for themselves) against Soviet export fighters. That's certainly not the whole explanation (especially when both sides were in French-built Mirages), but it could help their superior skills and organization achieve even more lopsided results.

Posted by: markm on April 12, 2003 07:54 PM