War and free software

Short URL: http://fsmsh.com/2042


On a sunny and seasonably warm January 27, 2007 Saturday afternoon about 500,000 people marched in Washington DC to send Congress the message to end America’s occupation in Iraq and bring the troops home. But, if the U.S. (and other countries) war machines have their way, future conflicts will rely less on human troops and more on automated weapons systems. And for all the reasons that FOSS is being chosen to satisfy businesses and individuals IT needs, so too is it being chosen by the world’s militaries to design, simulate, test and control their future weapons.

As most of us know, FOSS provides an abundant set of efficient and productive tools. Many are aware of the reported peaceful uses of FOSS in government. Linux has long been used in NASA, to create beowulf clusters, and now to develop land robot explorers. And, of course, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) provided most of the vision, funding and research in the creation of the internet, and more recently has sponsored the Grand Challenges competition for robot controlled vehicles.

Unbeknownst to many, however, is the increasing use of FOSS by the militaries of the world. Every now and then the mainstream media may report on some peripheral aspect of this, such as this article by the Washington Post onthe NSA and Vista.

But Microsoft is clearly losing its luster with the military industrial complex because, well, would you trust running your naval fleet on Windows? That was a question posed to the British Royal Navy recently. This question was brought to a head concerning the US Navy and Windows when in 1997 the USS Yorktown guided-missile cruiser was left dead in the water, and had to be towed to port, basically because its Windows-based OS wouldn’t boot.

Other countries, however, don’t have the money and resources to waste on buggy and old weapon systems dumped on them by American and European weapon makers, and are more and more taking the “we can do it ourselves" approach. Take for instance the Chinese FOSSinitiative. China, partly as an act of national security, is eschewing the reliance on American corporate chip makers Intel and AMD, and is developing their own microprocessors to specifically run their own versions of Linux. These will certainly find their way into future Chinese weapon systems.

While China may be the biggest, and most muscular, emerging user of FOSS for military purposes, it is hardly the only. Israel is a major developer and user of FOSS, along with its middle east neighbor Iran. And let’s not forget that Venezuela is beefing up its military, while mandating the government wide use of FOSS. Not to mention South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, Japan, and all of Europe too. The U.S., apparently seeing the light too, has embarked on robotics based, software driven Future Combat Systems program, where FOSS will play a significant role.

FOSS’s role isn’t just limited to running the weapons either. The proliferation of cheap and pervasive HPC clusters allow for any country to just as easily design suitcase nukes, and sequence the DNA for the next bio-weapon, while they do the design of hypersonic jets, and weather forecasting. And one of the greatest fears the U.S. government has is the cyberwar capabilities of a growing number of states (as well as corporations and individuals).

But while FOSS’s role in the waging of war is surely rising, it doesn’t mean that war will/should become more inevitable. In fact, the principles behind the development of FOSS can be the biggest deterrent to war—people from all walks of life, all over the world, working together, to produce tools that can be used to benefit everyone. It is up to us to work, and if necessary fight, to ensure that our creations are used to make us free, and not to destroy us.



uslacker's picture
Submitted by uslacker on

You have two references to "prove" your point that Windows is "losing its luster" with the military. The so-called recent example by the British military was in fact a decision from 2004 on a version of the OS that's 7 years old.

The reference to the Yorktown incident from 1997 is now 10 years old. Surely there are more recent example than this. No? If not, then how can you draw that conclusion? You may very well be correct, but you've not made the point with this reader.


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Anyone who's had to reinstall MS Windows again and again and again on account of the malware deluge, knows rather well that it's not a very safe system, even behind a firewalling router - which in most cases, happens to be running Linux or a *BSD anyway.

And speaking of countries not having "the money and resources to waste on buggy and old weapon systems dumped on them by American and European weapon makers," I myself suggested that my own country define its strategic environment rather than fall in line with US hand-me-down policies.

The only problem is that they have had a look and decided that they don't really need a military aviation deterrence. Pity.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

you honestly believe that places like China, Iran, Isreal and so on are going to develop control and command software using FOSS, and release this Source Code under the GPL ?

You've GOT to be joking,

What's the FOSS community going to do with code the controls a missile, or a launcher system ??

I also wonder that if one of these Countries you mentions does make the source code available as is a requirement for FOSS, (the OPEN SOURCE bit).

so the enemy can analysie the software's reponse and develop methods and countermeasures to exploit its design weaknesses.

THis is what happens now, all side continuously analyse the opposition system, for performance and for ways to "trick" or confuse it.
This techniquie is WHY defense keep their methods a secret.

But if you make these systems OPEN, you are giving the ENEMY a "free kick".

What about "ethics" people ?? when i read this article, i get the impression that it does not matter about the human rights, or ethics of a country, they are "OK" as long as they follow the FOSS mantra.

there may be a place in the world for FOSS, but regarding FOSS above ALL ELSE, ie Country politics, etherics, human rights, or even WHAT SIDE THEY ARE ON.

You talk about China, and at the same time, you say how good they are (ethically) because they "might" be using FOSS.
Does not seem to matter that China will happily severaly restrict access to INFORMATION, let alone source code.

why not you think China will make their source code available, and i guess you also think Google is great because they use FOSS, (except where it counts, ie they keep their search code proprietry).

Google also work closely with the Chinese government to limit what its citizens can access on the internet. Nothing that might make China out in a bad light.

as said, there may be a place and time for Open Source, and FOSS, but thinking its good for mankind, to make military control system FOSS is certainly not one of them.

But rest assured, the military does not use FOSS, as a an electronics engineer, and software developer for the military, also being Ex-military.
I KNOW its just not true,

Thankfully the military has more brains, than to allow source code, methods and procedues, and system responses to become freely availbile to ANYONE, let alone the enemy.

also, finally, to write code for a system, you generally have to know HOW that device workds, and the military usually dont like Joe public having those kinds of details on their systems. Its called "security".
its there becuase you usually dont want the enemy to know how you system work, because when you know how a system works, its quite easy to determine the easiest way to stop it from working, you only have to confuse a system ONCE and you've killed lots of people.

How to win friends and influence people, just tell them your working (FOR FREE), on a Iranian millile launcher system, writing software for them.
But its OK, just dont let you "homeland security" people know what your doing, they may just take a dim view of such practice.

If Bin Ladin was a FOSS hacker, he would be ok ?

There are some things in the world that should never be free or OPEN,
Medical equipment
Military equipment

i dont want a 13 year old hacking working on either of these systems, and am more than happy to ensure these systems are developed by "GOOD" programmers, and system developers, and not some schoolboy.

and the FOSS boys are always saying Microsoft is the "Evil force" in the world. seems to me thats its the FOSS people who are willing to "get into bed" with anyone who'll give them a platform.

Its sad that FOSS has to lower its standards, if there were ever any ethical standards to start with.

Jabari Zakiya's picture

You seem to misunderstand the focus of my discussion, and apparently didn't look at the links I supplied. FOSS IS IS BEING USED in all the stages of weapons development, because its available, good, and FREE.

The point is not that software for command and control, etc should or would (it wouldn't) be released, but that FOSS allows for countries to get into the game very cheaply and reliably. The most important use of FOSS in weapons development is not within the weapons themselves but in the process of design, simulation, test, development and management.

Inexpensive, off-the-shelf, HPC clusters running Linux allows any country to design and simulate anything they want for fractions of the cost it used to cost the U.S. and Russia to create their war machinery at the height of the cold war. So too with information storage and data mining, communications, and all the other support activities that have to be sustained to produce any product, military or non-military.

Thus, FOSS allows countries to get more for their money, and more that's already been tested, and proven to work, so they can concentrate more on the new stuff they want to develop. This is where FOSS is making the biggest impact on weapons development, along with its increased use in actual weapons systems themselves (read the links).

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

> you honestly believe that [different countries] are going to develop control
> and command software using FOSS, and release this Source Code under the GPL ?

First, they would never release such code. Second, the sources need to be accessible only for derivative work of some other program under GPL, and only when the derivative program is being distributed or sold (yes, that's perfectly possible with GPL). Third, nobody is obliged to distribute the sources, if they are using the program internally. And if some program is not based on GPL-ed work, if it is original or proprietary work, there is no way of making the authors to release its sources.

And most importantly, the code for "control and command software" wouldn't be released ever, even if this would be the violation of GPL - for obvious national security reasons.

That's why the whole situation poses a problem. Rest of your reasoning is not valid, sorry.

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Jabari Zakiya's picture