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Machine Tools as WMDs

Bruce Vernyi
Bruce Vernyi
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A recent article in the New York Times pointed out how dangerous machine tools can be, and how they can be used advancing the production of weapons of mass destruction for terrorists.

In mid-June, the newspaper cited secret documents and unidentified sources indicating that, among the secrets Abdul Qadeer Khan allegedly peddled on international markets, were detailed machining codes that could be used to produce parts of a nuclear weapon. Khan is a scientist and engineer, and is considered the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

The implication is that Khan was providing CAM files and/or G-code that could be used to machine the components of a nuclear bomb.

These were fresh details related to the reasons that the governments of the United States and Japan imposed export restrictions on advanced machine tools to countries such as North Korea and Iran.

Kahn apparently was making machining codes available in the same way that almost any customer might send a CAM file or G-code file to a machine shop with an order for a part with demanding tolerances using instructions such as:

“Post-process this CAM file to develop the G-code, then make the part on your machine tool. Inspect to ensure dimensional tolerances, and you’re done.”


“Use this specific model of machine tool and CNC control, install this G-code, and run the part. Then inspect to ensure tolerances were met.”

I know that makes it sound easier than it actually is, but that’s the point. The newspaper article didn’t identify the parts that the computer codes were for. The parts might have been a nuclear weapon’s uranium core, which has to be made to exact tolerances so that it achieves critical mass upon detonation; and/or the casing that directs the detonation to compress the uranium core to critical mass.

Having the detailed machining codes for those parts would make it easier to build a weapon of mass destruction if you had the essential tool to do the work: An advanced CNC machine tool that could meet the tolerances spelled out in the code.

That news story puts a fresh light on the technology that some machine tool manufacturers have incorporated on their machines to hobble them if they are moved.

In January, I wrote an editorial commending Yamazaki Mazak Corp. for its decision to install motion detector devices on its machine tools.

Marubeni Citizen-Cincom Inc. did the same thing even earlier, equipping its machines with a motion relocation detector in 2001 for machines exported to Asian countries. It made the motion relocation detector a standard feature on all of its new machines in April, 2007.

The idea behind the motion relocation detectors is that each time a machine is moved, the manufacturer has to issue new password to restart it. As a result of these devices, advanced machine tools can’t be moved to — and used in — Pyongyang, Teheran, or other outposts that might cater to terrorists.

Other machine tool manufacturers may be using similar devices, but if they are, they have not publicized the fact. For the rest, maybe it’s time that they follow the lead blazed by Marubeni Citizen and Yamazaki Mazak. These two companies are industry leaders taking a direct role in the fight against terrorism.

They are taking export compliance beyond the letter of the law, and they are taking the danger out of machine tools — making it more difficult for terrorists and outlaw nations to develop weapons of mass destruction. I, for one, feel that much safer for their decisions.

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