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« The Excluded Middle | Main | Missing The Point »

Amateur Rocketry and Terrorism

The post Rand links to below brings up some issues that have been floating around in the amateur rocketry community for some time. There are some people within the community who claim that there is no realistic problem, but they are simply wrong. If amateur rocket scientists are to have any relevance to opening the high frontiers they will develop weapons relevant technologies. The simple and obvious reason for this is that rockets are a transportation technology, and as such they can be used to transport harmful payloads just as aircraft, boats, and trucks can.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the ideal method for developing new technologies or bringing established technologies within reach of amateurs is to leverage the power of information technology to facilitate collaboration between widely separated individuals and groups. This is something that Michael Mealling of RocketForge has been working on for some time now. The Arocket mailing list is another collaborative tool (and Michael has been extremely helpful in providing tools to the Arocket community such as the Arocket Wiki).

I've been working on an igniter for some time which is part of a collaborative project with other folks on Arocket (see the Arocket Igniter Wiki on RocketForge for an idea of what we've been up to). One of the nice things about a high reliability bipropellant igniter is that it's not very weapons-relevant since weaponeers tend to prefer either solids or hypergolics. The ARocket Igniter is explicitly intended as an exploration of the feasibility of open development for rocketry. John Carmack has shown that open discussion of R&D efforts can help cut development time and bring out good ideas. It would be very sad if we lost this tool due to terrorism concerns.

The only way forward I can see which both leverages the Open Development model and minimizes the terrorism proliferation risk is to work primarily on systems aimed at manned flight. Obviously a terrorist would love to have access to a manned RLV, but the bad guys can do cost-benefit analysis just as well as anyone else. If the effort required to build a vehicle is high relative to the cost of an alternative attack with equivalent results then the alternative will be preferred. The difficulty associated with construction of a manned vehicle also increases risk exposure from the terrorist standpoint - the more time spent in development, particularly development of a vehicle with a large number of "suspicious" components, the higher the chance of being discovered and the investment being lost. The bad guys face a resource deployment problem that any businessman can relate to - given the available set of resources, how should they be allocated in order to most effectively achieve the desired results? It is within this framework that amateurs must work to ensure that our discussions of rocketry technologies take place in an unfavorable region of the terrorist's resource allocation trade space.

Within the context of this trade space I think that unmanned solids fired straight up with primitive guidance are just about the worst thing amateurs could work on. I won't go into details other than to refer to Jay Manifold's post, and to note that the enemy understands public relations. The target would not be surveillance satellites. It would be ISS, STS, or a Soyuz (almost certainly the former). A manned vehicle would have a much higher chance of success, but also a vastly larger development program, with negative (from the enemy's point of view) impacts on the chances of discovery, as well as large opportunity costs.

Apart from choosing the right problem, the only thing I can see that amateurs can do to be relevant to opening the high frontier is to support an active research and development program in ballistic missile defense. If there is a credible defensive option then the hazard created by easier access to rocketry technologies is much less. This doesn't help the ISS attack scenario, but it reduces concerns due to other factors.

A note on comments: I very much want feedback on this issue, as it directly affects my own choice of future path. However: do not discuss technical details of weaponizing amateur class rockets, modes of attack, or any other technical details which might lower the bar for the bad guys. As a calibration point - Jay's post is a little past the line I am comfortable with, as he discusses some technical details of warhead design and suggests a possible attack scenario. I will delete or edit comments which I think cross the line.

Posted by Andrew Case at May 19, 2004 02:02 PM
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The same sort of technology that has Jay worried might work just as well as a missile defense system. Load a bunch of surplus solids with gravel and a burst charge and put up a temporary sandbar in the path of any incoming warheads.

Posted by Hunt Johnsen at May 19, 2004 04:36 PM

I think I'm a little past a lot of people's comfort lines. ;)

Hunt, interesting that you should say that -- I recall that Arthur C. Clarke once suggested a bucket of nails in a retrograde orbit as an ASAT. I believe he later changed his mind about missile defense (from anti- to pro-).

Seriously, thanks to Rand and Andrew for the pointer and to the commenters for their thoughtful comments.

Posted by Jay Manifold at May 19, 2004 04:48 PM

IIRC, G. Harry Stine said the same thing, he could make an ASAT with off the shelf sounding rocket and nails. There are alot of stuff in model rocketry that could be made to make booms happen remotely. I remember hearing how terrorists were using casio watches as timers for bombs. The news report gave instructions but as I told my sister "that's not how you do it."
This rocketry article gives a description of a run in with some suspicious charaters.

http://www.vatsaas.org/rtv/misc/aftclosure.aspx

CNN reported on June 12, 2002 that a source in Germany's BND intelligence agency "warned that al Qaeda operatives could strike passenger aircraft model aircraft or small rockets." The source added, "the threat was being taken seriously despite its unspecific nature."

I read that and thought, "Oh, great -- like rocketry hasn't been through enough lately."

Well, at about that same time a fellow who claimed to be a student in the United Kingdom contacted my brothers and me via our web site. He explained that he wanted to design and build a high-powered rocket as a research project. We responded as we usually do to inquiries from anyone obviously new to the hobby -- we gave him some generic information about rocketry, encouraged him to start small, and to begin with a visit to his local hobby shop. He rejected this advice, explaining that the urgency of his research would make it necessary to jump right in to a large project.

In a very short time the correspondence from our new friend included questions that made it obvious this 'research project' was rather unusual. He wanted to carry a heavy payload, formulate his own propellant, and make his own motors (which by itself sounded like a typical BALLS project). However, he also wanted to calculate trajectory and targeting data, communicate with the rocket in flight, and build it out of steel. Taken all together, it didn't pass the stink test.

Some amateur sleuthing turned up several interesting facts: First, the web site for his email portal was written in Arabic (see http://www.bab.com/). Second, we discovered his emails were not originating in the UK, but from somewhere in the vicinity of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I relayed this information to a friend of mine in the FBI who quickly verified that our friend was not who he claimed to be. They also agreed that the circumstances and deception in this case would suggest this information was being collected for potential use in a terrorist weapon. Because the FBI has no offshore jurisdiction, the case was handed over to the CIA. On their advice, we discontinued our correspondence. Some time has passed now and we have heard nothing on the progress of the investigation.

I feel obligated to communicate this information to the rocketing community, as I doubt we are the only hobbyists who have been contacted by those who would try to use our hobby for nefarious purposes. Be aware that the fellow(s) who first contacted us have realized their early deceptions were rather transparent and have become more sophisticated. For example, they have since switched to an email provider in the UK.

Were we contacted by a bona fide bad-guy or by some wannabe whack-job? I hope I never find out. I've left a lot of blanks in describing the details we learned about this fellow, as some items are disturbing enough that I prefer not to list them. The potential strongly exists that it was not just one impostor acting alone.

Here is some of the evidence that reinforced our suspicions about our enigmatic friend. These may be clues to others who find themselves in a similar situation.

* Misspellings and grammatical mistakes that indicate a non-English speaker (beyond just sloppy typing skills).
* Cultural ignorance and misuse of colloquialisms.
* Evasiveness or inconsistencies regarding personal details (location, employment, school, etc.).
* Wanting to loft mysterious payloads or use of construction materials not typical to the hobby.
* Concern about trajectories or targeting.
* Boasts of grandiose projects coupled with obvious inexperience in the most basic elements of rocketry.

One of the great aspects of our hobby is the enthusiastic support we give to one another. I see no reason for this to stop. But we must also be aware of who it is we may be helping and think twice before answering unusual questions or even directing strangers to information already available on the Internet. Even though there is a great deal of data readily accessible to anyone with a working web browser, none of us would knowingly lend assistance to a potential terrorist. While I personally believe that misusing the technology available to our hobby would more likely produce malicious mischief than widespread mayhem, I am still relieved to know that my brothers and I did not become unwilling accomplices in some gruesome plot.

I admit that I did debate with myself - for maybe two seconds - about whether it would be bad for the hobby to contact authorities or to broadcast this information publicly. I concluded that rocketry has survived as it has only because of our own self-regulation and self-enforcement of safety guidelines. Due to the times we live in, the level of required diligence has just been raised. We cannot afford to be either careless or ignorant.

Check the website for pics of this "Hobbyist's" rocket most likely he was converted to catfood by the IDF.

Posted by bruce at May 19, 2004 05:17 PM

Interesting. One of the arocket sites got a significant flurry of hits all coming from the middle east last year. I don't remember which site off the top of my head, but I remember the webmaster being a tad concerned about it at the time.

The Palestinians are already using amateur class rockets (the Qassam I and II, IIRC) to lob explosives into Israel. I suspect we'll see more of that as the wall nears completion.

Posted by Andrew Case at May 19, 2004 06:14 PM

Our group had to give some thought to this issue of openness a few years ago. We adopted a general rule that we want to get to know you before we say much AND we tend to do some background checking. We usually meet our collaborators face-to-face, but after some time to get to know each other, they can learn a fair amount about how we do what we do.

For some time now, I've thought the real key was with the guidance system. If our government is keeping track of people developing guidance systems, they have a good chance of knowing everyone involved who may become directly or indirectly dangerous. A terrorist might develop their own guidance system or steal one from another group, so both channels are worth tracking. The obvious exception is that guidance isn't really needed against a stationary target. All you need is a bit of experience.

I don't mean to tick off the second amendment folks here, but I'm all in favor of my government keeping track of people developing rocket systems large enough to get through a building's window without it having to be opened first. Stopping this research, though, would be a silly waste of time. I can atest to the fact that a lot of the technology needed to do something scary isn't difficult to build from scratch and commonly available parts. Tracking those involved is the key and with modern information systems, it shouldn't be all that hard.

I don't mind sharing what I'm up to and with whom I communicate. A big part of why I use my own name in communicaitons like this is to ensure even the amateurs in our field can track what I say and tell me if I go too far. Whether federal agents have us in a database or not, we can help do our own policing if we pay attention to people in our field and speak up when we think there are problems that need addressing.

Posted by Alfred Differ at May 19, 2004 07:42 PM

Model airplanes are just as much a threat, if not more so. While they wouldn't have the dramatic aspects of using a rocket, it's quite feasable to build a plane with precise targeting capabilities (onboard camera using a microwave transmitter, or GPS receiver transmitting back location) and a larger "cargo capacity" than a typical model rocket. The off-the-shelf control range is typically about a mile, but that's also not difficult to increase... they also have more useful applications than a rocket (surveillance and weapons platform).

So, shall we ban model airplanes as well?

Posted by 42nd SSD at May 20, 2004 12:02 AM

I agree, guidance/accuracy was the biggest issue that came to my mind on this. If you are trying to hit a satellite, youre trying to hit something moving roughly five miles a second with another object moving on a different, suborbital trajectory. Even the ISS would seem a pretty small target at these speeds. Putting a cloud of nails in a retrograde orbit is a separate subject, requiring a very serious rocket. More likely is a rocket that can make a suborbital hop up to 300 miles or so with a small payload.

Clearly law and regulation will have to adapt to extreme amateur rockets. But I suspect they would be hard to hide in many ways. They would be big. There would likely be many test failures. They would need expert help in many areas and there is a great deal of "art" involved, so "cookbook" instruction would only go so far. For ASAT use, there would be sophisticated guidance testing. A finished rocket would have to be moved to an appropriate launch site near the sat. track. also difficult to hide.

While I think it is an important issue, at this time Im more concerned about more governments developing ASAT capability when we are doing almost nothing to protect our satellites. Governments have more resources and can test more quietly. I'd like to see a clear move to a satellite defense program.

Posted by VR at May 20, 2004 01:08 AM

For some time now, I've thought the real key was with the guidance system.

Yup. My thinking too. Just delivering delta-V to a payload doesn't make and effective weapon. Getting the payload somewhere harmful is the key.

Posted by Andrew Case at May 20, 2004 06:57 AM

42nd SSD:
>Model airplanes are just as much a threat, if
>not more so.

I recall a Sci-Fi novel I read in the mid-80s, ("The David Sling" IIRCC") where it opened with an attack on the Kremlin by a returned collage studant that had studied in the United States AND developed a hobby of RC aircraft.
As has been discussed here it was basically, (and called such in the novel) an 'amature' cruise-missile.

>While they wouldn't have the dramatic aspects
>of using a rocket,

"Dramatic" would be entirely in the effect, NOT the method.

>..it's quite feasable to build a plane with
>precise targeting capabilities (onboard camera
>using a microwave transmitter, or GPS receiver
>transmitting back location) and a larger "cargo
>capacity" than a typical model rocket.

Why 'build' when you can buy? Off the shelf.

Which, of course, leads to the 'worries' about the uses of amature and model rockets...

>The off-the-shelf control range is typically
>about a mile,..

Up to 20 for some off the shelf equipment. More if your using some semi-autonomous equipment.

For that matter there is RC cars... anyone remember "The Dead Pool"?

Randy

Posted by at May 20, 2004 07:12 AM

Randy, I think you might be referring to The Moon Goddess and the Son by Donald Kingsbury.

Posted by Karl Gallagher at May 20, 2004 08:31 AM

The RC hobbies are already being looked at by the BATFE and Homeland Security, and Senator Lautenberg has gone on record as saying any hobby that has the "potential" for terrorist use should be heavily regulated by the government.

I fly model and high-power rockets using commercially available motors, and one thing they are not is accurate in any weaponized sense. If you want to bring down an aircraft, a black market portable SAM makes much more sense and is readily available. Delivery of airborne agents would be easier (though still not easy) via RC aircraft. And you still can't beat the accuracy achieved by parking a car, van, or rental truck next to whatever you want blown up.

At least on the lower end of rocketry, the regulations are feel-good measures that the authorities are using to claim they're doing something about terrorism. It's a lot of effort wasted on solving problems that barely exist.

Posted by Ted at May 20, 2004 08:32 AM

Rand
"I recall a Sci-Fi novel I read in the mid-80s, ("The David Sling" IIRCC") where it opened with an attack on the Kremlin by a returned collage studant that had studied in the United States AND developed a hobby of RC aircraft."

Karl Gallagher
"Randy, I think you might be referring to The Moon Goddess and the Son by Donald Kingsbury."

Or not. Kingsbury's book didn't open with that attack - it was at the climax of the novel. Using a (IIRC) home-built cruise missle using off the shelf components for guidance.

Lord, look what you made me do - now y'all are gonna think I'm an SF-geek just because I remember the plot details of a novel I read a dozen years ago . . .

Posted by Brian at May 20, 2004 10:16 AM

HAMAS and Hezbollah have been plotting to use model airplanes for quite some time now. Fortunately, they've run into technical difficulties with weight issues. Downside being that chem and bio weapons can be much lighter than your traditional explosives - and they know that.

Posted by Prague at May 21, 2004 07:31 AM

Well, we're not going to see lots of traffic to and from space if everyone has to play Mother May I with the government before launching. We're certainly not going to get beyond space travel being a hobby for the wealthy.

That's why the War on Terror is so important. We've got a choice between everlasting stagnation on this pathetic rock ball and eliminating the terrorist threat so we don't have to subject everyone to a background check before they're allowed to play with real rockets.

Posted by Ken at May 21, 2004 12:44 PM

Rockets have serious potential for causing accidental damage, not to mention being just a bit loud on takeoff. It is absolutely certain that space capable private rocket launches will be regulated, and I think almost everyone will agree they should be. The question is HOW they will be regulated. Unreasonable regulation will be an ongoing problem.

Posted by VR at May 21, 2004 03:00 PM

Having been at one time a weaponeer, I say that creating a weapon from hobby rockets or self-made rockets is possible but only in an extreme case. The extremity I mention is in years of development time and hundreds of firings to characterize first the propellant, then the motor, then the warhead, then the total assembly followed by the calibration firings to develop a range table. Someone who says "I can make an XXXX weapon from XXX and XXX in XXX days" is simply and totally incorrect.
I can tell you with certainty that off-the-shelf hobby rockets are not nearly accurate enough in their manufacture and loading to use as weapons with predictable performance.

We are told that the Russians have quit making RPG's, but the supply seems unlimited. Now THAT is a real weapon and hugely available and cheap. There is no reason for a terrorist to manufacture a weapon when it is readily available.

Now large quantities of explosives are generally not available, so one could expect that the manufacture of such could take place locally.

Not nearly perfect, but a good analogy is in a terrorist choosing to use a BB Gun over a .22 in performing his hideous act.

Posted by Bill Colburn at May 24, 2004 05:56 PM


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