The Shadowy Side Of The Kill Switches: The Case For Self-reliant Defence Industry

A kill switch is a safety mechanism intended to instantly shut down machinery in an emergency, if regular shutdown procedures are insufficient. However, installing a kill switch in defence equipment has both pro and cons, and it also makes a strong case for India to become self-reliant in defence production, to avoid any misuse of kill switches.

By Chirayu Sharma and Dr Punit Saurabh

Opinion

A kill switch is also officially known as an emergency brake, emergency stop (E-stop), emergency off (EMO), or emergency power off (EPO). In contrast to routine shutdown procedures, which safely turn off all systems and stop the machinery, a kill switch immediately stops the machine to stop theft or damage.

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For example, in order to avoid unwanted usage, Apple designed a remote “kill switch” that enables the owner of an Apple phone to turn it off in the event that it is lost or stolen. If a feature like this is useful for consumer electronics, it begs the issue of why the same technology isn’t included in products that may have defence applications.

Integrating the Kill switch in military weapons

After taking control of Mosul in 2014, the terrorist organisation ISIS amassed a sizable cache of weaponry given by the United States to the Iraqi army, including M1 Abrams tanks, Humvees, helicopters, and anti-aircraft guns. ISIS utilised these freshly obtained weaponry, which they paraded, to overpower the outmatched Kurdish forces and take control of the strategically important Mosul Dam.

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If a feature like a kill switch is useful for consumer electronics, it begs the issue of why the same technology isn’t included in products that may have defence applications

In retaliation, the US started airstrikes and rearmed the Kurds in an effort to neutralise the threat that its own weapons represented. Furthermore, there was a time when the US administration was immediately concerned that one of its airdrops meant for Kurdish friends may have wound up in the hands of the enemy.

These hypothetical situations highlight how firearms might be abused or taken by terrorists, with potentially terrible results. After more such instances, Internet futurist and security advocate Jonathan Zittrain makes a strong argument for installing kill switches in military equipment in a Scientific American article.

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On its face, the concept makes a lot of sense. The United States is providing other nations with this strong weaponry, and there isn’t really anything it can do if it ends up in the wrong hands. Thus, why not equip tanks, Humvees, and other vehicles with the same kind of kill switches as seen in iPhones?

Many nations have started adding kill switches to their weapons in response to different instances of misuse and in order to reduce the possibility of abuse or theft. As a safety precaution, these kill switches are included into most military weapons.

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Firearms might be abused or taken by terrorists, with potentially terrible results. After more such instances, Internet futurist and security advocate Jonathan Zittrain makes a strong argument for installing kill switches in military equipment in a Scientific American article

Turning off: Countries using it from safety to sabotage.

In the dynamic global geopolitical arena, the distinction between allies and opponents may become hazy very quickly. As a result of this uncertainty, nations have begun including kill switches into their armaments.

These kill switches are an essential safety measure, enabling a country to remotely neutralise its own armaments in the event that they are turned against it. This tactical move makes sure that the country’s security and interests won’t be jeopardised by the weaponry in the case of an unanticipated betrayal or change in allies.

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By integrating such technology, countries want to improve their defence systems and retain greater command over their armed forces, especially in uncertain circumstances.

The Head of Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries, İsmail Demir, disclosed important steps to protect national security in relation to the export of armed drones in December 2021. He gave his word that these drones being sold will never be a threat to Turkey, implying that the exported models have a kill button built-in.

Photo courtesy: https://www.oleg-kovalev.com/portfolio/kill-switch-drone/

Demir highlighted Turkey’s strategic intelligence by saying, “Turkey is experienced in this field. Turkey will not act in a way that it may endanger itself.” He also explained that the drones Turkey sells to other nations are not the same as the ones the Turkish military uses.

It was believed by various intelligence quarters that several key assets have been strategically neutralised.  The death of former Pakistan President Zia-Ul Haq in a C-130 aircraft crash, General Shen-Yi Ming from Taiwan in a helicopter crash and more recently the death of President Ibrahim Raisi of Iran in a Bell helicopter crash is a subtle indication of the same.

It is suspected that a potentially malicious kill switch might have played a role in their elimination. General Bipin Rawat’s untimely death in a Mi-17-V5 helicopter crash also remains shrouded in secrecy and the exact reason may never be known.

Many nations that export weapons include one or more death switches in their defence product export versions. These hidden workings are usually difficult to find. Furthermore, it is challenging to identify them or disable them without endangering the system itself.

Many nations that export weapons include one or more death switches in their defence product export versions. And usually, it is challenging to identify them or disable them without endangering the system itself

There is also a potential risk that kill switches could be integrated into imported helicopters and planes used by VVIPs of that country for strategic meetings. These switches could be activated to cause a deliberate crash, under the guise of an accident.

This may also hold true for tanks or missiles, submarines or customised aircrafts for strategic and VVIPs. Another major concern with imported defence equipment’s and strategic weapons is that they may be enabled by secret location revealing chip which could be ‘woken’ even years later and whenever required.

A high-tech secret laser emitter or receiver hidden within the regular paraphernalia, disguised as a necessary component with duel applicability, may also prove dangerous if not researched in detail by experts.

This begs for the need for a complete overhaul in the defence policy of India, which has mostly favoured importing major defence equipment’s from various partnering countries.

It may be reminded here that there are no permanent friends or enemies, necessitating the requirement for cutting reliance on other nations. Additionally, the policy makers should ensure that industrial defence manufacturers take extra care to ensure that no vigilance of vital assets is avoided during their manufacturing may suggest it.

Risk associated with kill switches

Significant hazards arise when a kill switch is used without authorisation, especially when hacking and cyber attacks are involved. The kill switch is vulnerable to hacking if it is electronically operated or network-connected.

The way forward for India would be to go for a complete Aatmanirbharta policy in defence production, eliminating the need to purchase strategic assets to ward of possible threats emerging from them being compromised

Adversaries can remotely disable the system or weapon, leaving it unusable at a crucial time, thus making it vulnerable. Insider threats also represent a significant risk. A person who possesses authority over the kill switch may inadvertently or intentionally trigger it. When a weapon is most required, such activities might cause it to malfunction, jeopardising both operational effectiveness and safety.

To sum up, kill switches rely on complex electronics and software, both of which can malfunction. A malfunction can cause the weapon to be rendered inoperable when it is most required, or it might prevent the kill switch from deactivating the weapon when it is required.

Environmental influences can also have a big impact on how well kill switches work. Extreme weather, such as heat, cold, wetness, or electromagnetic interference, might lead to the kill switch malfunctioning or accidentally activating it, thus endangering the system’s dependability and efficacy.

It is therefore important to understand the technical challenges and ways to mitigate them. The way forward for India would be to go for a complete Aatmanirbharta policy in defence production, eliminating the need to purchase strategic assets to ward of possible threats emerging from them being compromised.

Chirayu Sharma, is an MBA working as a finance professional and research analyst. He contributes insightful opinions on a diverse range of topics to various journals.

-Dr Punit Saurabh, teaches strategy and international relations at the Institute of Management, Nirma University, Gujarat.