War and free software

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.


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