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Are smart mines a dumb idea?
By Rob Slade
15 April 2005

The Register and CNN have written articles on an AP report that the US is deploying newly developed wireless LAN-enabled mines, supposedly codenamed Matrix.

This is not the only "smart" mine research that is going on. DARPA is funding a proposal for a "self-healing" minefield (SHM), with mines that are somewhat mobile, and have communications capabilities.

With the US being one of the few holdouts against the ban on landmines, there are predictable concerns about the danger the new mines hold for civilian populations. However, there would also seem to be any number of potential dangers to the troops using them. The dangers vary somewhat for these two systems.

Let's look at Matrix, first. There are very few details provided in regard to the new mines. There appear to be different types. They have some kind of wireless capability. They have remote detonation capability.

Based upon what is said, we can determine some additional aspects of the technology, as well as surmise more. They likely communicate via radio frequencies. They will have some kind of (likely minimal) software for reception of signal, authentication, and activation. (Deactivation is likely accomplished by activating the mine when [hopefully] nobody is around.) The mines are probably individually addressable: blowing an entire minefield for a single intrusion would not seem to be an effective use of resources. Radio communication would imply that either the mines are battery powered, or that they contain an antenna and transponder. Given the purpose and use of mines, it is likely that there is an alternate and more standard triggering mechanism such as pressure plates or tripwires that does not require wireless activation.

The potential risks are numerous. With radio communications mines that are buried, or placed under or behind metal or water, may fail to detonate when needed, or deactivate. (The current Matrix mines are based on Claymores, and are intended to be picked up if not used. However, this is not the type of thing that you want to just leave to memory that might be a little questionable in battle situations.)

Any kind of software is, of course subject to failures (which, in this case, could be literally catastrophic). Authentication would be a fairly major issue: sniffing of radio traffic could easily determine commands, replay attacks, static passwords, or number sequences. (Note that the mines require "minimal training" for use. Such would probably not cover the finer points of setting up a battlefield public key infrastructure.) Failure of authentication could, again, result in failure of either detonation or deactivation.

Battery failure would be an issue and therefore transponders are more likely, but transponders would be more difficult to troubleshoot. (Should the transponders retransmit? That would assist with finding and disarming mines, but broadcasting a signal with known improper authentication would result in a means of determining the location of mines.)

Matrix, therefore, would seem to have a significant number of failure points, even for a very simple system, and a number of the failures could result in danger to the troops using them.

SHM is a much more complex system. The first danger that springs to mind, therefore, is that very complexity. Components for mobility, communications, authentication, positioning, and decision-making will all have to work together. Such a system would be quite large, and therefore have greater room (and hiding places) for errors.

SHM is going to be subject to a number of the same problems as noted for Matrix. It is also supposed to have a number of additional performance features:

  • ' Autonomously identify and respond to an enemy attack within 10 seconds of a breach attempt or vulnerability in the minefield.'

Ten seconds is a long time in terms of computer operations, but it isn't a very long time when you are trying to identify an event. How do we know it's an enemy attack? Well, some mines are missing. How do we know they are missing?

Well, we can't communicate with them anymore. Ah, but why can't we communicate with them? Have they been blown up by the enemy? Or has the enemy simply broadcast a jamming signal over the minefield, in the hope that the mines will start blindly shuffling around? What's the best response? What is the size of the area that has been cleared? Gonna need a pretty smart mine.

  • 'Be mobile in all environmental conditions and terrain where enemy tanks can operate.'

While, at least this limits the requirements slightly. However, is it reasonable to expect small, presumably fairly flat, mines to have characteristics similar to tanks? Small boulders would probably not be an issue for tanks (it certainly isn't for bulldozers), but the mines would probably have a lot of difficulty with them. Therefore, an enemy attack would probably be accompanied by a dumptruck filled with rocks.

  • ' Rapidly assemble a scalable communication network'

OK, this would have to be an ad hoc network, since there wouldn't be much point in having the mines shipped in sets that could only be used for minefields or certain sizes or shapes. I suppose that there could be a key distribution controller mine, but that would result in a single point of failure.

I remember trying to figure out how to create a computer analogue of "social" knowledge that can be used for setting up ad hoc trust networks (such as the Americans, in WWII, asking questions about baseball teams in order to verify identities). We never did figure out a possibility.

A "web of trust" might be possible: having mines shipped in crates "trusting" each other, and setting one or more from each crate to trust other crates. Seems rather iffy and error prone, though.

  • '... and self-geolocate in 5-15 minutes.'

This would seem to imply that the mines are going to be using global positioning. GPS should be good to within a metre. However, one suspects that a lot of data in terms of maps, and the boundaries of the desired field. And, of course, you want to be absolutely sure that the mine knows both where it is and where it is supposed to be. A great attack on the SHM would be to spoof commands and have the whole field pick up and walk under the friendly tanks that they are supposed to be protecting.

  • 'Have a robust mine-to-mine communication resistant to enemy countermeasures.'

Easy to say, hard to do. There are, of course, all kinds of potential communications attacks. Jamming, for one (as noted above) could have a number of ramifications. Then there are issues of sniffing, spoofing, authentication, and so forth. As noted with Matrix, simple battery exhaustion creates problems (the first being that you are left with a bunch of no-longer-smart mines littering the landscape), and is likely to be all the more of a problem when the things are trying to move themselves around. (A battery pack that would keep a cellphone going for weeks would last less than half an hour driving a toy car. And mines are likely to be a lot heavier.)

In contrast to Matrix, however, it is necessary for SHM that the mines transmit, at least sporadically. (In fact, given the requirement earlier, it is necessary that they transmit more frequently than every ten seconds.) Therefore, it should be an expensive, but relatively straightforward, task to build a system that will locate the position of every mine in the field.

  • 'Have a Non-GPS based geolocation with 1 meter location accuracy.'

Ah. So we are *not* going to use GPS. Or we are not going to rely on it. (Probably a good thing, what with the military threatening to turn off GPS when a threat appears.) Well, there's still Loran. (I remember working with that. Not quite as good as GPS ...) Or, we could use the distance from the other mines, based on signal strength and timing. Take a lot of programming, processing power, and data in memory ...

Bottom line: the smart mines might not be so smart after all.

Related Links

DARPA's Self Healing Minefield

MATRIX / Spider / Intelligent Munitions System (IMS)

ATK Matrix System Selected by Army for Accelerated Deployment to Iraq

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