Wi-Fi Minefield

The U.S. is laying a minefield in Iraq that can be controlled by a soldier with a wi-fi-enabled laptop. Details via AP.

Put aside arguments about the ethics and efficacy of landmines. Assume they exist and are being used. Given that, the question is whether radio-controlled landmines are better or worse than regular landmines. This comment, for example, seems to get it wrong:

“We’re concerned the United States is going to field something that has the capability of taking the man out of the loop when engaging the target,” said senior researcher Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch. “Or that we’re putting a 19-year-old soldier in the position of pushing a button when a blip shows up on a computer screen.”

With conventional landmines, the man is out of the loop as soon as he lays the mine. Even a 19-year-old seeing a blip on a computer screen is better than a completely automatic system.

Were I the U.S. military, I would be more worried whether the mines could accidentally be triggered by radio interference. I would be more worried about the enemy jamming the radio control mechanism.

Posted on April 18, 2005 at 11:15 AM19 Comments


Loraan April 18, 2005 11:55 AM

Maybe I’m obtuse, but I didn’t see anywhere in the AP article where it mentioned Wi-Fi (I searched for “802.11” and “Wi-fi”). My experience as an instructor–occasionally to military personnel–leads me to believe that they’re well aware of the dangers of RF jamming and spoofing and that they will take reasonable steps to prevent it.

Timm Murray April 18, 2005 11:55 AM

Whatever you say about the military, they do put their soldiers through a rigorous training program that instills discipline. I’d feel better about a 19-year-old who went through boot camp controling a bomb than an average person of twice that age.

Davi Ottenheimer April 18, 2005 12:06 PM

I agree this appears to be an improvement. I would argue that you can never put aside the “ethics and efficacy” of landmines. Quite the opposite, I would put aside the issues of false-positive and human-error. Having a digital map or even remote control of the mines seems like it changes the entire discussion for the better. If nothing else it should make the explosives far less prone to being “set and forget” devices, which is a primary reason for their horrible long-term effect on civilian life…assuming someone cares about disabling or removing the explosives once conflict has subsided.

Davi Ottenheimer April 18, 2005 12:28 PM

On a completely different note, wouldn’t the mere presence of a radio signal significantly increase the chances of detecting one of these minefields? Imagine robots sent into a potential minefields with sophisticated radio detection equipment…a remote mine operator would probably not know the difference and be exposed to the robot capturing or retransmitting the signals for analysis.

You might say the modern corporate workplace is becoming a testing ground for this situation as security professionals are forced to constantly detect and analyze radio signals around them.

Michael Ash April 18, 2005 12:29 PM

It’s ridiculous that they’re concerned with giving a 19-year-old a button to push that sets off a mine, but they apparently have no problem with giving them powerful automatic rifles, rockets, artillery, tanks, etc. If they’re mature enough to handle all of that, surely they can handle a minefield too.

Emmanuel Pirsch April 18, 2005 12:42 PM

Actually… having a 19-year-old at ready to push a button could be worse!

Imagine that instead of waiting for 1 blip, he waits for 5 or 10 (meaning more people entered that mine field) then he choose to press the button. A lot more damage will be done than having a “standard” dumb mine field.

The problem with mine fields (radio-controlled or not) is that they do not distinguish their targets. No amount of improvment will make them better.

Joe Buck April 18, 2005 12:46 PM

If the radio control can be used to deactivate the minefield after the conflict is over, that could be a good thing. Minefields continue to maim and kill civilians for decades after wars end; even today, Cambodians and Vietnamese children continue to lose limbs from old mines. Children are more likely to set off old mines than adults, because they are curious and don’t know better.

It’s for this reason that most of the world wants to ban mines altogether.

Anonymous April 18, 2005 1:58 PM

I don’t think arguments about the ethics and efficacy of landmines can be put aside here, because surely the “smartness” of these mines will be used to justify laying more of them.

kyphros April 18, 2005 2:01 PM

I too feel that giving more control of the mine field is a great idea. As it stands now, they are a set and forget device, which leads to issues like the above mentioned Cambodia where old mines are still set and explode periodically. Mines can be extremely useful in controlling the passage of troops, but after the conflict is over, they aren’t removed. This would give the ability to remove them afterwards, which is a Good Thing.

richj April 18, 2005 3:22 PM

I used to work with one of the engineers who helped develop these mines. From my limited discussions on the subject (and this was about 4 years ago) the mines were able to communicate with one another to ensure that the maximum damage was done to an enemy unit as possible. They could also “listen” and report back movements to the Command Post. Also, they could be disabled from a remote location. Seems like a great way to deploy these things, maximize the impact on the enemy and minimize the impact on innocents.

As far as the 19 y/o in charge of it — I was a grunt in the Marines and I was entrusted with automatic weapons at 18, and led troops in combat in Somalia at age 22. These guys know what they’re doing.

Timm Murray April 18, 2005 3:40 PM

It’s not enough to just be able to disable the mines remotely to get rid of them when the war is over. They have to be removed completely. The explosives will destabilize with age and could be set off with light vibrations. They could also leak and pollute the surrounding land.

Quadro April 18, 2005 6:44 PM

With this system, it would be much easier to get rid of the mines when the war (or even a specific campaign in a specific area) is over. Send a guy out to make sure there’s nobody in the minefield then once he’s out of the field detonate them all. Problem solved.

To those who say that setting off all the mines is a bad thing: Would it be better to blow them all up or to simply leave them in the ground to maim civilians for decades to come?

Terry Karney April 18, 2005 10:49 PM

Actually the real problem here, from the military mindset is the same one which caused the Phoenix missle system to never be used as intended.

Targets beyond visual range.

All the heavy hardware alluded to above is used when someone, somewhere puts eyes on the target. This minefield would be done with remote information.

For reasons both understandable, and strange, laying a “dumb” minefield is less bothersome than one of these, because the friendly fire effects are those of a direct action on the part of someone.

The 19 year-old question is less important. Rarely is the person in charge of such a field going to be in personal fear, so the odds of a decision made in panic, and so his/her age is less a factor.


Gregg Leonard April 19, 2005 1:01 AM

I think there is something to be said about the issue of radio interference and using robots against a system of this type. I do think the military would take considerable steps to make sure no one would be able to compromise the command and control system. Using a system that relies upon strong encryption to keep the system secure as well as a mechanism to stop spoofing and replay attacks could render the effort to overide said system rather futile. Given that the algorithm is sound and the key is of an acceptable length, the data end of the system can remain secure from enemy attack. Now on to the RFI problem…. Radio interference or even intentional jamming could cause some serious problems. Creating a communication system able to defeat this challenge is possible. If the system was designed to maintain radio silence during combat operations, it may not give any detectable information. Such a system could be set up to transmit all of the relevant data just moments prior to detonation. One option could include using a secure frequency hopping algorithm and a signal recovery technology that allows the signal to be recovered out of an equal or greater db level of noise. Another option might include using disipative resonance transmission scheme where the signal is slowly absorbed by the medium it is traveling through. This scheme might keep the detectable range only within a few feet or meters. A point where the victim is already far too close to the mine. For all the problems of implementing a system such as this, there are indeed technological options available to keep it secure,useful and deadly. Some off the shelf solutions as well as others that just requiring a little customization of already existing technologies.

So who wants to go for a walk?

Anonymous April 19, 2005 4:48 AM

Human Rights Watch aren’t making the same comparison Bruce is, because they disagree with the assumption that “landmines exist and will be used”.

Prior to this development, the US military did not use anti-personnel landmines (it does use cluster bombs, which do in fact leave a lot of dangerous unexploded munitions lying around, but that’s not in the requirements document. I vaguely recall it also uses anti-tank mines, but I don’t really know). So the reason the human is being “taken out of the loop” is that the 19 year-old is securing an aread by sitting indoors hunched over a laptop controlling a minefield, instead of standing in the same field in the rain holding a rifle.

So, Human Rights Watch don’t “have it wrong” here. Bruce’s simplifying assumption, that the US will use landmines regardless of whether they’re remote-controlled, is false. That’s even putting aside arguments over the ethics of dumb anti-personnel mines – the fact is that the US no longer uses them.

Arturo Quirantes April 19, 2005 4:51 AM

It is a sad think, IMHO, that the U.S. still makes and plants mines, while most of the world goes the other way around. I also found it strange that the most powerful military machine on Earth seems to be incapable to defend itself without having to resort to mines.

Concerning the tech itself, we do know that any technology is prone to abuse and failure. If GI Joe can detect and neutralize a mine, what prevents the enemy from doing so? Does Cobra lack a high-tech center?

And supposing everything goes well … current software is not really durable. Even my 3-years-old WordPerfect files do not convert to Word well (compatibility be damned). How will soldiers in 2020 deal with mines built with 2000 technology? I can imagine the laptop messages “Mine 2.0 is out of date, please update…”

Clive Robinson April 19, 2005 8:15 AM

My concern is the same that happened with atomic weppons the so called ‘mutually assured destruction’.

You have to remember that a traditional minefield acts as a deterant to both those that lay it and those that wish to cross it. Once put in place it effectivly “salts” the ground to both sides and creates a no go zone to both sides. Simply putting a traditional minefield in place acts as an anouncment to the oposition (like the old line in the sand). Most countries will avoid drawing a line in the sand as it puts them in a difficult position both legaly and diplomaticaly.

However if I am country A and I do not trust country B I put down extensive smart mine fields which are also covert around my own boarders and at other places within my boarders that I think might be of stratigic importance. This covert minefield not only alows me to carry on using the land it also alows me to cross it at whatever point I like at any time of my chosing. As long as no other country either guesses or finds out about them then I have a significant advantage.

However if Country B thinks country A has deployed covert minefields, they will effectivly be forced to do the same to prevent country A’s armourd ground forces trunderling across the boarder as and when they feel like it.

Both sides will quickly get into the mind set that they need more larger better covert smart minefields.

The next problem is that country B only has problems with country A not country C. However country B having realized that Country A can enter via Country C will be forced to put the mine fields along that boarder as well.

The question is what does Country C do when discovering countries A and B have put these covert minefields up against their boarder…

israel torres April 19, 2005 11:01 AM

Retrofitting low-tech with high-tech isn’t always the best solution… but it appears our US Military is learning something from the terrorists of today (e.g. remote controlled bombs ala Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

Israel Torres

anonymous April 19, 2005 8:40 PM

Hope the laptop is secure… (the article does not specify what operating system or other software is used on the laptop, etc.)

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