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Pentagon Wants Kill Switch For Planes 548

mytrip writes "The Pentagon's non-lethal weapons division is looking for technologies that could 'disable' aircraft, before they can take off from a runway — or block the planes from flying over a given city or stretch of land. The Directorate's program managers don't mention how engineers might pull off such a kill switch. But, however it's done, they'd like to have a similar system for boats, as well. They're looking for a device that can, from 100 meters away, 'safely stop or significantly impede the movement' of vessels up to 40 feet long, with 'minimal collateral damage.'"
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Pentagon Wants Kill Switch For Planes

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  • by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) * on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:48PM (#23757895) Homepage Journal
    I say: "Attack vector".
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by mrbluze ( 1034940 )

      I say: "Attack vector".
      It's cheaper than firing a missile at a passenger jet.
      • by Datamonstar ( 845886 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:01PM (#23758043)
        What the hell do you need a missile for when you've got a passenger jet?
        • by hardburn ( 141468 ) <hardburn&wumpus-cave,net> on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @11:27PM (#23758813)

          Here's an idea for you: broadcast the hijacker transponder code and jam the voice frequencies. After ground stations get no response, a twitch General will order the plane shot down. No sense trying to smuggle a bomb onboard when you can get the Pentagon to do it for you.

        • by Hojima ( 1228978 ) on Thursday June 12, 2008 @01:19AM (#23759565)
          I'm sorry, but why does everyone think that a terrorist's only weapon is a jet? How hard do you think it is to make a bomb (hint: diesel fuel+ammonium nitrate found in fertilizer = half the explosive force of dynamite per mass)? Any pissed off retard can mix a truckload those two together and blow up any building. So why hasn't it happened? Has anyone considered the fact that these extremist group leaders have been using religion to gain power and are much more interested in controlling (i.e. terrorizing) their own population. The Muslim religion doesn't passively hate the west, the extremists just use it as a campaign slogan to start a Jihad. That way, anyone who is not with them (non-extremists) are against them. The best way to stop them from getting to us is stopping them from utterly invading the country like the Taliban did.
          • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@gm a i l . com> on Thursday June 12, 2008 @02:59AM (#23760105)

            I'm sorry, but why does everyone think that a terrorist's only weapon is a jet? How hard do you think it is to make a bomb (hint: diesel fuel+ammonium nitrate found in fertilizer = half the explosive force of dynamite per mass)? Any pissed off retard can mix a truckload those two together and blow up any building. So why hasn't it happened?.
            Oklahoma City Bombing, April 19th 1995 - shortly before 9am, Timothy McVeigh parked a van containing a 5,000lb bomb made mainly of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. At 9.02am the bomb detonated, killing 168.
            • by darthflo ( 1095225 ) on Thursday June 12, 2008 @04:42AM (#23760807)
              Not to rain on your parade and you've certainly got your history right, but when something as scary as terrorism requires you to think back thirteen years to an event with 168 fatalities, this seems very damn ridiculous to me.
              Just as a sad little comparison: On average, each and every 36-hour-period from 1994 through 2007 had more people die in traffic accidents [1] than this huge headline-making bomb. 9/11, OTOH, took almost four weeks to be offset by road fatalities (and caused four^Wseven years of all-out war against freedom (and the middle east)). Strange, eh?

              [1] []
          • by squoozer ( 730327 ) on Thursday June 12, 2008 @06:32AM (#23761559)
            You must be from the UK. That was the IRAs favourite bomb making mixture for a long time. Typically it was a transit van filled with oil drums containing a mixture of diesel and fertilizer (about half a dozen drums normally). I saw a video of such a truck going exploding once - I wouldn't like to be near that!
      • by COMON$ ( 806135 ) * on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:21PM (#23758261) Journal
        Go figure the govt using a sledgehammer to polish a window. IT pros are used to these situations, rather than explain the problem and ask experts to find a solution they tell you the solution that their pea sized short sided brains can conceive.

        Why not get a group of engineers together and say, come up with a contingent plan for hijackings. This would open the door to creative solutions other than kill switches.

        • by arthurpaliden ( 939626 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @11:20PM (#23758769)
          The solution to aircraft hijackings has be listed in post hijacking reports since the 1960s. Strengthen the flight deck walls and door and keep the door locked. If this had been done 9/11 could never have happened. After all, if the Israeli airline could do it why couldn't everyone else.
          • by Phroggy ( 441 ) <.moc.yggorhp. .ta. .3todhsals.> on Thursday June 12, 2008 @12:05AM (#23759109) Homepage

            The solution to aircraft hijackings has be listed in post hijacking reports since the 1960s. Strengthen the flight deck walls and door and keep the door locked. If this had been done 9/11 could never have happened. After all, if the Israeli airline could do it why couldn't everyone else.
            Au contraire! Before 9/11 the hijackers simply would have said "unlock the door or we'll start killing hostages," and they would have unlocked the door. The assumption at the time was that if you make the hijackers think you're giving in to their demands, they'll land the plane safely and let the hostages go, and then you can try to capture the hijackers. The American people now understand that some hijackers want to use planes as weapons and are willing to die for their cause. Consequently, the threat of killing hostages no longer carries any weight.

            Locked door or not, after 9/11 it is no longer possible to hijack a plane and fly it into a building.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 12, 2008 @12:08AM (#23759125)
          Amen! Mark Twain said 'When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail'. The stupid thing is they announce these hare-brained schemes without even realizing how dumb they sound. Our intellectual superiors should be tackling terrism at the roots, where future terrists are born, bred and indoctrinated. Instead these high-tech sort of solutions will cost $$$ and not give results. As Bruce says, all the terrists have to do is when planes get too hard blo up a shopping center or train which aren't well defended. They're assuming the terrists will use the exact same attack vector as they did last time.

          And hey NSA: Why are you wasting time logging and reading my message? Why aren't you looking in the caves of North Pakistan for you-know-who? You guys get heaps of cash. Please spend it sensibly.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Tanktalus ( 794810 )

          You're assuming that they didn't already have huge numbers of such engineers together and among the top recommendations was this gem. That said, it does seem like a reasonable assumption, but we do have to recognise it as an assumption. All we really know is the output from whatever meetings they may have held, and not how they got there.

          Also, keep in mind some constraints. This is the Pentagon looking, not the FAA. It is outside the Pentagon's purvue to dictate the make-up of civilian aircraft. It is

    • by arminw ( 717974 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:54PM (#23757967)
      Hey, they obviously left out cars and trains here. A way to disable all cars on all LA freeways might have same use. I don't know what, but I'm sure some hare-brain in government could figure out what that would be good for.
      • by Sabz5150 ( 1230938 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:03PM (#23758069)

        Hey, they obviously left out cars and trains here. A way to disable all cars on all LA freeways might have same use. I don't know what, but I'm sure some hare-brain in government could figure out what that would be good for.
        We have that technology. It's called "Gas Prices", and it does an excellent job at disabling cars and trains. What's it good for? Elections.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:11PM (#23758173)
      How in the world can you 'safely stop' and aircraft in flight?!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:49PM (#23757909)
    Something called WEP.
  • by PainMeds ( 1301879 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:51PM (#23757933)
    ... looking for technologies that could 'disable' aircraft, before they can take off from a runway

    Delta seems to have the edge on this market already.
  • by willyhill ( 965620 ) <> on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:51PM (#23757935) Homepage Journal
    I believe that's called an "anti-aircraft missile" system, sometimes with the "shoulder-launched" feature for only $9.99 more.

    How the hell do they intend to pull that off without collateral damage. Force fields? Giant shark balloons?

  • equals the plane itself and all passengers aboard. Wouldn't a better idea be to devise a way to disable manual control and either keep it that way or reinstate auto-pilot to somehow navigate the plane to pre-set locations where an emergency landing is feasible?
    A "kill switch" as of now means an F-18A intercepting it and shooting it down.
    • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:20PM (#23758247) Journal
      A "kill switch" as of now means an F-18A intercepting it and shooting it down.

      The term "kill switch" was a journalistic flair added by Wired, and doesn't actually occur anywhere in the Request for Proposals [].
      • by esocid ( 946821 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:40PM (#23758467) Journal
        Seems more reasonable now that I read the actual request. It mentions preventing aircraft from being taken off of the ground, but it doesn't go into much detail about when in flight and preventing aircraft from flying into no-fly zones, at least not from what I perceived, other than

        Effects should be focused on the aircraft, not the pilot or other personnel on board
        . But a little skepticism of the govt is always a healthy thing to have. I would still be wary of having some sort of device on board a plane I'm inside of, and that is one big malfunction that could occur.
    • REMOTE CONTROL (Score:4, Insightful)

      by maz2331 ( 1104901 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:56PM (#23758603)
      Sorry to shout in the title (not really) but isn't it just obvious that all commercial aircraft should be fitted with some way to take remote control?

      All you need is a few cameras, some electronics, a computer, and a radio. It isn't rocket science.

      As for small private boats and cars, this is a phenominally stupid idea. First, it won't work. Any asshat looking to use a boat to blow something up is going to get the cheapest one available... which means one built in the 1980's wwithout any electronic controls at all.

      Or they will buy a new one and just retrofit the damn thing to work around a kill switch. Just slap an old V8 in there, or build their own electronic fuel injection control (almost trivially easy) and shield the hell out of it and the kill switch is dead itself.

      For large commercial jets, making them remote-able isn't a problem, and the airlines would go along with it for just the liability protection alone. For personal vehicles, fuhgeddaboudit.

      • but isn't it just obvious that all commercial aircraft should be fitted with some way to take remote control?

        Close, but this can be abused. The better solution is an automated landing system with a failsafe.

        Basically, if the pilot (or whoever you enable on the flight, stewardesses, whatever) gets scared enough he initiates an automated landing that can't be overridden without replacing the airplane's control system.

        The system finds the nearest capable landing site without severe weather, declares an emerge
  • by corsec67 ( 627446 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:54PM (#23757955) Homepage Journal
    If they have something that can disable a plane, how do the prevent malicious usage?
    And then how can you prevent that kill switch from being disabled?

    Boats aren't that complex, especially if you have a diesel engine, where electricity is not required.
    Airplanes could be made without that special "feature".
    • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:21PM (#23758259) Journal
      Better question that that is:

      What the hell are they going to do with it? Once they are installed and there is no longer any use in trying to use a plane for terrorist activities and the terrorist turn to the much easier alternative that they already have ... uhhh who the fuck is going to pay for the kill switches? This OCD focus on air transport for anti-terrorism is a ploy as there is no reason to believe that there are MORE terrorists who WANT to use planes.

      It's all a ruse to continue the 'war on terror' and the multibillion dollar boondoggle of the American populace. $4/gallon is nothing once we start paying for all these unnecessary anti-terrorism measure it will be up to $15/gallon or higher.

      Actually the only word that I can think of for the focus on air transport is criminal. Nothing less is behind it.

      As myself and many others will point out, there are PLENTY of other worthy methods of terrorism. Picking the most guarded of them is hardly filed under 'surprise attack' in the terrorist's field manual.

      Back to basics here:

      Where are the terrorists? Prove it!
      What will they use to attack? Prove it!
      Why won't they use other, simpler methods? Prove it!

      If you can answer those three in support of beefing up air transport security I will quickly ask why you have not gone out and apprehended them already since you know who is guilty of what and why, and apparently have the fucking proof.

      I'm so tired of these ineffective and inconvenient excuses for the government to steal my rights in the name of protecting me. Fuck off already. At the rate things are going, the next round of so called 'terrorists' will actually be citizens revolting against the protective measures.... arrgghhhh
  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:56PM (#23757985) Journal
    Reading a bit further the RFP noted the Pentagon would really like a pony.
  • by davidsyes ( 765062 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @09:57PM (#23757993) Homepage Journal
    Yeh, and then some evil types of people or even pranksters (on ground, or by using a so-configured laptop or camcorder or hand-held game) might figure out how to:

    -- boost the reception range in order to deceive or seduce the cockpit,

    -- bypass security (long accept command if wheels up, over 100 kph indicated, if turbines over 25%, if altimeter log indicates movement inconsistent with runway traffic...), to force unwitting external (non-pilot) command input

    -- trick the ground-based systems to interfere with runway traffic to cause on-ground, or taxi-vs land traffic...

    -- trigger false halts and false diverts to wreak havoc upon ATC or military airspace controllers when the aircraft (in real-time or by delayed instruction) fail to "squawk" back...

    then all hell could break loose. Don't think I wanna be on one of those planes... nor near one...

    Basically, they want radio-controlled, perimeter-restricted shopping carts that work on the ground or in the air.... roi...ght....
  • by Original Replica ( 908688 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:00PM (#23758027) Journal
    I don't think drug runners or terrorists are going to be using DRMed boats or planes.

    Given how often tasers are used as pain-forced compliance devices as opposed to an alternative to an actual deadly force situation, I don't think non-lethal disabling technologies do anything but provide the government with media friendly ways to suppress dissent.
  • by dlevitan ( 132062 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:02PM (#23758059)
    I'm sure they could install a special system that interfaces with the plane's electronics and GPS system and shuts down the plane's engine upon receiving an encrypted request from the Pentagon. The only problem with this is how are you going to install this on all private planes? Who's going to pay for it and are they going to pay for electronic upgrades for all planes as well?

    As for boats, how in the world are they planning on stopping sail boats? Most smaller boats (16-24 feet or so) don't even have outboard motors let alone any electronics. Are they going to require motorized sails on the boats that will roll the sails up on command? Or an anchor dropping mechanism? How do you deal with small boats that are just a fiberglass hull, mast, and sail?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Eskarel ( 565631 )
      TBH I don't think they really care about fiberglass boats that are just hull, mast and sail.

      You can't crash a boat like that into much of anything and do any serious damage(without a lot of explosives at least), you can't outrun a motor launch in one of those, and you're not likely to get in a situation where there's a lot of innocent people on one of them and they're not too hard to sink.

  • They may want to work on the name. People are nervous enough flying without getting onto a plane with a "kill switch" installed.

    Just sayin'.
  • by robo_mojo ( 997193 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:05PM (#23758087)
    *shudders thinking about stepping on anything with a "KILL SWITCH"*

    I've really gotta stop reading slashdot, to save my health.
  • The Pentagon really needs to think outside the box here. Airplanes and boats are pretty small and can't really do that much damage. Imagine how much damage someone could inflict by hijacking a 1,000 foot 15,000 ton train.
    • by chill ( 34294 )
      Considering a train only goes where there are tracks, not a lot by comparison.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by tftp ( 111690 )
        Tracks lead into major cities. A freight train can have 100 cars, each carrying 100 tons - 10 kilotons total. If the load happens to be explosive, it will demolish the whole city. Such things happened before [], unintentionally.
  • by smchris ( 464899 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:06PM (#23758111)
    Which would you rather be in: a train where the locomotive has a kill switch or a jet that has a kill switch?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by morcheeba ( 260908 )
      I've ridden amtrak once, and apparently the kill switch had been activated. We were locked on the train & didn't leave NYC until about an hour after we were supposed to arrive in DC... so, it wasn't too fun. I've also flown hanggliders, which have their kill switch activated all the time... lots of fun!!

      (p.s. I love trains... Japanese ones beat planes for 1 hour flights)
  • James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic (twice) about small airplanes being equipped with a parachute to deploy in case of engine failure. Here's the technology [].
    If terrorists take over a plane, just deploy that sucker.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tomhudson ( 43916 )
      Riiiight ... you've just lifted the wheels, and someone throws the kill switch. You "glide" back into the ground, with a full load of fuel, no power, no wheels, no control.
  • So after high prices, airlines dropping bankrupt, concerns about safety, and various maintenance problems, what we really need for aircraft is a way to make them A) more expensive B) more complex C) require more government restrictions and D) add a way that anyone can disable a plane. That is really going to help America! What I think is funny is how 1 terrorist attack used planes and that is all we are concerned about lately, even though we look to every country but America and see how the terrorists use o
  • by __aapopf3474 ( 737647 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:15PM (#23758201)
    Total disclosure: I've worked on Soft Walls.

    There was discussion on Slashdot about the Soft Walls Project [] that did something similar. See the 1/04 [] and 7/03 [] discussions.

    What I find interesting is just how vehement software engineers and pilots are about the idea, and yet everyone seems to trust fly-by-wire.

    There is Soft Walls FAQ [] that covers common objections.

  • No "Kill Switch" (Score:3, Informative)

    by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:31PM (#23758371) Homepage
    You misunderstand. They aren't looking for some sort of kill switch to be built into the aircraft, despite the reporter's use of that phrase. They want a "nonlethal" weapon to use against aircraft.
  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @10:31PM (#23758377) Homepage Journal
    We don't yet know what caused the crash of the Boeing 777 BA038 crash at Heathrow in january but this post on the reg [] makes an interesting suggestion.
  • I distinctly remember that before the 911 attacks passengers were instructed to comply fully with hijackers. This was because it was thought that this would lessen the danger to passengers.

    911 really blew the hijacker's wads, because there are no longer compliant airline passengers.

    There will never be another hijacking unless the sole purpose is to crash the aircraft arbitrarily - in which case a kill switch wouldn't really hurt the hijacker's plans.
  • by synonymous ( 707504 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @11:08PM (#23758683)
    I want a kill switch for the pentagon
  • by Luscious868 ( 679143 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2008 @11:10PM (#23758697)
    Here's a crazy thought .. instead of spending tens of billions to develop something like this (and billions more on other warsa nd weapons) why don't we remove our troops from the Middle East and stop meddling in their affairs to the point where we get thousands of people so pissed off at us they are willing to hijack planes and kill themselves to make their anger at us known. Just a thought ...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ari_j ( 90255 )
      Do you really think that either (a) the people in the Middle East who hate the West do so only because there are Western troops in the Middle East or (b) removing those troops now will end that hatred?
  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <> on Thursday June 12, 2008 @12:04AM (#23759105)

    Typical moronic Pentagon mentality. Plan for what's already happened and won't happen again. Something that would accomplish this will cost billions, probably not work on motors that were protected by the proverbial tinfoil hat, and could be defeated by a pissed-off 10-year-old with two cell phones and a pack of bubble gum.

    There's times when technology and politics meet in a very ugly, venal way. This is one of those times. It has "Pork Barrel" written all over it.

  • How to do it right (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday June 12, 2008 @12:44AM (#23759379) Homepage

    There's a way to do this right. Read this article about the F-16 GCAS []. This is a ground collision avoidance system that works so well it can be used on combat missions, including flying through mountain passes at 500 knots, 200 feet from rock. Pilots call it "You can't fly any lower". When the Auto-GCAS decides a ground collision is imminent, it takes over the aircraft, rolls to wings-level and initiates a pull-up. (In an F-16, the roll is at 180 degrees per second and the pull-up is at 5G; for an airliner, much lower numbers would be configured and recovery would be initiated much sooner.) Read the article; fighter jocks liked the thing, and those guys usually hate letting the automation take over the aircraft.

    This would prevent most "controlled flight into terrain" accidents (there are about three of those involving commercial jets per year, worldwide), so there's a big win in having this independent of military/terrorism worries. Once you have a system like this, it can be given "no-fly" areas into which it won't let the plane go. If you're going to enforce "no-fly" zones via hardware, it's better to do it through a system that knows about terrain and is looking at it with radar.

    The way to do overrides would be to give the pilot a switch to turn off the system in an emergency, but doing so sends out an emergency transponder signal that this has been done. The ground then has the option of sending up a suitably encrypted signal to turn it back on. This gives a way to handle system failures. If the ground sees a plane heading somewhere it shouldn't be, the ground can force the system back on.

    I wouldn't be at all surprised if Airbus starts offering something like this. (Airbus takes the position that the aircraft should protect itself against pilot errors. Boeing has the philosophy that the pilot should always be able to override the automation. The Boeing approach worked better back when the typical airline pilot had 10,000 hours, a previous military flying career, and was chosen competitively from a big pool of applicants.)

In English, every word can be verbed. Would that it were so in our programming languages.