Military’s Gun-tracking Tech Could Also Help Enemies


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Determined to keep track of their guns, According to the Associated Press, the technology that some U.S. military units started using to keep track of their guns could allow enemies to detect troops on the battlefield.

Despite the Department of Defense’s stand on the technology in firearms posing a “significant” security risk, the rollout on Army and Air Force bases continues.

For the same reason, the Marines have refused to utilize radio frequency identification technology in weapons, and the Navy said it is stopping its attachment this week.

The technology is also known as RFID and it is evident in daily civilian lives. Thin RFID tags allow drivers to go through toll booths, hospitals to find tools, and supermarkets to track their stock. Tags are also used in some identity documents, airline baggage tags, and even amusement park wristbands.

When RFID tags are fixed in military guns, they can trim hours off time-intensive tasks, such as counting and distributing weapons. However, outside the armory, the same technology that aids in automating inventory checks could become an untoward tracking signal.

The AP explored how the U.S. armed services use technology to keep track of their firearms as part of the probe on the issue of stolen and missing military guns — some of which have been used in street violence. The study included new field tests that showed some of the security issues brought by the RFID.

The field tests demonstrated that tags embedded in the weapons can easily be duplicated, allowing a new advantage to would-be thieves in gun rooms and armories.

More importantly, even low-tech foes could identify U.S. troops at distances far greater than what the installer the systems say.

This is the reason the Department of Defense spokesperson said its policymakers are against placing tags in weapons except in limited and particular cases, like firearms that are only utilized at a firing range — not in combat or to guard bases.

According to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland in his statement to AP, “it would pose a significant operations security risk in the field, allowing an adversary to easily identify DOD personnel operating locations and potentially even their identity.” 

The spokespersons of the Air Force and Army at the headquarters said they are unaware of the number of units that have converted their armories.

As discovered by AP, there are five Air Force bases operating at least one RFID armory and one more that plans a retrofit. According to executives at military contracting companies, several units have pursued proposals.

A confirmation was made by a Florida-based Army Green Berets unit, the 7th Special Forces Group, on the use of the technology in “some” of their arms rooms. According to Maj. Dan Lessard, a special forces spokesman, special forces soldiers are allowed to bring the tagged weapons into the field. A different pilot project at the sprawling Army base in North Carolina, Fort Bragg, was temporarily discontinued because of COVID-19.

The RFID technology has been used in one armory on a base up the coast from Los Angeles for inventory. However, spokesman Lt. Lewis Aldridge suddenly said this week that the technology “didn’t meet operational requirements” and wouldn’t be utilized across the service.

RFID started to be built within the Air Force after a machine gun disappeared from the 91st Security Forces Group in 2018. It guards an installation that houses nuclear-tipped missiles. Officers later found the weapon, but the incident echoed across the service.

Since the Air Force commanders were planning how to boost the security of the armory, the defense contractors presented the familiar technology, one with military origins.

The history of RFID traces back to World War II and the development of radar. After the first Gulf War demonstrated the requirement to organize huge supply chains of shipping containers, the use of this technology in the 1990s grew in the U.S. military.  

The U.S. military is not the only one using the RFID to manage its weapons: Government armories in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have also employed the same.

Converting armories can be costly up to thousands of dollars and more. However, the convenience it gives is its major selling point. The usual recording of serial numbers on paper and scanning them through barcodes are now replaced with a technology that reads the tags in a rack of weapons through a handheld reader. The embedded tags are not even using batteries. 

According to the contractors that supplement armories, the tags can be read-only within a certain range, usually a few dozen feet or less. However, in AP’s field testing, two well-known cybersecurity experts demonstrated that a tag inside a rifle can be scanned from a significant distance, just by utilizing affordable components that can be placed inside a backpack.

While U.S. government restrictions on signal transmission can be observed by the hackers, they said, foes who would not be so constrained could detect tags miles away.

Some within the tracking concern of the military share.

According to a spokesman from the Marine Corps, it has decided not to tag guns across the service.

“The use of RFID tags on individual weapons systems increases the digital signature of Marines on a battlefield, increasing the security/force protection risks,” said Capt. Andrew Wood.

During the training exercises in the Southern California desert in December 2018, a top weapons expert from the Corps shared how the tags can be read from a significant range.

In a spring interview, Wesley Turner, who was a Marine chief warrant officer 5 said, “RFID tags on tanks, weapons, magazines, you can ping them and find the disposition of where units are. If I can ping it, I can find it and I can shoot you.”

The Air Force and Army refused to provide answers to detailed questions about the use of the technology in weaponry. In written statements, spokespersons said the unit commanders can add RFID systems as a further layer of accountability, however, there are no plans for service-wide requirements.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s policy experts seemed to not know that RFID tagging systems for the firearms have been used by the services.

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According to Defense Department spokesman Orland, when asked why service branches use a tech that is risky as per Pentagon planners, the services told the Pentagon they are not tagging guns due to security concerns.

Informed that AP found units that acknowledge using the technology, the

After AP informed the Pentagon they found units who admitted using the technology, it changed its statement and said it gives the service branches freedom to explore innovative solutions. 

The Defense Department “tries to balance pre-emptive prohibitions due to current security risks with the flexibility to adopt new technologies when they mature and those risks decrease,” Orland said.

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