Who's Stealing Our Military Equipment — and Can We Even Stop Them?

ByAaron Buchhop

This article is the first of a series covering 21st century military technology theft, its impact on modern warfare, and the protection of technology vital to the United States’ national security interests.

On a dark spring night in 2011, two United States MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters weaved their way through the mountains crossing the Afghan-Pakistan border on approach to target. The cargo — members of the elite military unit, SEAL Team 6. The target — Osama bin Laden, hidden away in his Pakistani compound. The mission — take out the target. The only thing more secret than the team of SEALs and their top secret mission? The helicopters.

Modified to be all but invisible to radar and nearly silent, the two Black Hawks were in fact the most important piece of the operation. Without them, there would be no safe or reasonable means of entry into Pakistan — or in other words, no mission.

Like most U.S. special operations, there are backup plans for the backup plans to ensure the mission is accomplished. Although the mission was a success that night, backup plans became a necessity as one of the Black Hawks crashed into the yard of the bin Laden compound.

As per SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), the pilot, with hammer in hand, began to destroy the delicate innards of the helo. Following the pilot’s surgical touch, the SEAL demolition team was ready to finish the job. Strategically placed explosive charges destroyed most of what could potentially be collected and studied by someone seeking to duplicate the stealth helicopter’s technology.

With other major military powers like China actively seeking to create stealth aircraft, such SOP is hardly overkill. The U.S. certainly didn’t want Pakistan to obtain such technology. That would be like writing a blank check to rogue states, terrorist organizations, and insurgents. The bin Laden raid operators did what they could to eliminate that possibility, but significant enough portions of the helo remained.

To be clear, the United States military does what it can to maintain a level of control over unexpected situations like this. However, In this instance and many others like it, just because the wreckage was blown by the SEALs didn’t mean the Pakistanis didn’t try to comb over the wreckage. Local children were hired to search the crash site for debris and the Pakistani military carried away the remaining tail piece of the wreck. Reports even indicate that China did in fact have an opportunity to study the remains of the downed helo.

While some may argue the semantics and philosophy of the U.S. as a hegemonic superpower, most ought to be able to agree on the fact that part of what greatly contributes to U.S. military might is the technology it harnesses. That said, most probably agree that some technology ought not be at the disposal of threats to U.S. national security interests.

In fact, throughout most of U.S. military history since World War II, there has existed a long line of contingency plans created solely for the purpose of ensuring vital top secret military technology does not fall into the wrong hands. This standard practice is in dire need of an upgrade.

Moving deeper into the 21st century and into the era of modern warfare, technological advances will continue to close the gap between civilian and military capabilities. Some argue this technological age has already begun to make militaries and the modern nation-state obsolete, as individuals and small groups become more powerful agents of economic and political change in a rapidly developing world. Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, the reality is that global threats to international security and stability, as well as U.S. national security, are still serious.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore in depth current examples of vital U.S. military technology that is beginning to fall into the hands of the ill-intentioned. Through these examples, the case will be made that it is time for us to begin taking active steps. We must better familiarize ourselves with our failures in order to ensure that the U.S. military is not so overstretched in capability and underfunded for its mandates that critical missions fail simply because we could not prevent our own top-tier technology from being used against us. Next week's article will discuss downed drones and the rise of techno-terrorism.