Known as a "controllable enabler," the device is essentially an electronic lock that allows only people who know a secret code to activate the missile. The device is implanted at the microchip level in the guidance system of shoulder-fired missiles, like the SA-7 model that may have been used to bring down an Army Chinook helicopter over Falluja, Iraq, this month. That attack killed 16 soldiers embarking on leave.
The enabler requires anyone firing a missile first to enter a numeric code using a keypad on the launcher. The device is different from trigger locks on guns and rifles, because when those are removed, the weapon still functions. Without the correct enabling code, however, a missile "just never turns on," said Bob Sherman, a weapons control expert who formerly worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And because the device is intertwined with the launcher's electronics, removing it can destroy the weapon.
Similar devices, known as "permissive action links," have been used to secure U.S. nuclear weapons for decades, Sherman said. And an inexpensive version has been used for years in car radios. If a radio equipped with the device is stolen, the radio is deactivated and cannot be turned on again without entering a code held by the manufacturer.
Sherman said the enablers could be effective in places like Iraq, where U.S. military forces have been unable to secure vast quantities of weapons. The codes could be changed at any time, either manually or via radio waves or satellite transmissions.
In the mid- and late-1980s, the Army determined the cost of maintaining enablers was too high, because teams of soldiers would have to circulate around Europe changing the secret codes, Sherman said. In 1994, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency picked up the idea and tried to rekindle the Army's interest, but without success, he said.
Sherman said the Army changed its tune following the Sept. 11 attacks, and began researching the technology again. However, officials at the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in northern New Jersey, where weapons-related research is conducted, said they were not currently looking at the device.
Sherman acknowledged that the enablers didn't catch on in part because of the concern that they might impede the worldwide arms trade. American arms-makers sell to foreign countries through contracts negotiated between governments or directly with the buying nation.
The United States was a major supplier of shoulder-fired missiles to mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan in their battle with the Soviet army in the 1980s. Those weapons were pivotal in turning the guerilla fighters into a lethal force able to bring down sophisticated Soviet helicopters. Sherman said hundreds of the U.S.-supplied missiles remain unaccounted for.
Weapons control experts fear that missiles lost in the shuffle of battle are winding up in the hands of terrorists, and are being turned on U.S. troops and civilians, as when suspected terrorists fired on an Israeli charter jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, last year.
"U.S. weapons, including [shoulder-fired missiles], have ended up in terrorist hands before, and if the government insists upon continuing to export these weapons, all possible precautions should be taken to ensure that they can only be used by their intended recipients," said Matt Schroeder, an arms control researcher with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
The SA-7, the launcher suspected in the Chinook attack, is an older weapon, first manufactured in the 1970s. The Soviets were the primary makers of the SA-7, but a number of countries have exported the missile over the years, which makes it difficult to determine how terrorists might be obtaining them, Schroeder said.
Clark the Dealmaker
Add technology lobbyist and contract rainmaker to the list of credentials on presidential candidate Wesley Clark's resume. The retired general and former supreme commander of NATO has consulted or lobbied for a number of technology companies that have tried to cash in on the homeland security business, some with great success and no small amount of controversy.
Clark resigned last month from the board of directors at Acxiom Corp., a data mining and consumer research company headquartered in Little Rock, Ark. He was added to the board to help the company win contracts at the Pentagon and elsewhere in government.
It may have worked. Acxiom is involved in the Transportation Security Administration's effort to build an airline passenger screening system-designed to weed out potential terrorists and other flight risks-and was reportedly being eyed to participate in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's now-defunct Terrorism Information Awareness project. That initiative was predicated on being able to sift though massive amounts of consumer data-to which Acxiom has access-for signs of nascent terrorist plots.
Acxiom's data was not only vast, but also particularly valuable following the Sept. 11 attacks. Personal data on 11 of the 19 hijackers reportedly resided in the company's systems. Clark was able to arrange a number of meetings between Acxiom executives and senior administration officials, including Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Vice President Dick Cheney, The New York Times reported Monday.
Acxiom wasn't the only technology contractor willing to pay for access to Clark's Rolodex. The former general also helped market a product from Time Domain, an Alabama defense contractor that makes a vision system for soldiers that lets them sense objects behind walls. Clark also worked on behalf of WaveCrest Laboratories in Virginia, promoting electric bicycles to military special operations forces.
Before officially launching his presidential bid in October, Clark resigned positions on four corporate boards, including information security company Entrust Inc., a contractor for the Treasury and Energy Departments, as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.