Some Taliban fighters have been able to ward off attacks by U.S. aircraft by wearing special infrared patches on their shirts that signal that they are friends rather than foes.
The patches, which can also help suicide bombers get close to U.S. targets, are supposed to be the property of the U.S. government alone, but can be easily purchased over the Internet for about $10 each. Also available online: night-vision goggles and military-grade communications systems like the ones used by the terrorists who attacked the Indian city of Mumbai last year.
While stealing uniforms is as old as warfare itself, the Internet has made purchases of military equipment much easier and increased the risk to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the patches have been stolen during raids on U.S. resupply convoys in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they can also be purchased in the United States and sent overseas with little detection.
In a recent investigation, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) bought patches using fake names and a front company with only a valid credit card. The patches reveal an American flag when looked at with an infrared light and were designed to avoid friendly fire during nighttime battles.
Jonathan Meyer, assistant director of forensic audits and special investigations for the GAO, told The Washington Times, "Based on our conversations with the Department of Defense, terrorists have used U.S. uniforms and the infrared patches to get close to U.S. and allied forces on the battlefield and at bases. This is more of a potential suicide-bomber risk."
Mr. Meyer helped lead the GAO investigation, which concluded that few regulatory controls exist for dual-use and military technology sold domestically.
Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said the infrared patches are also made in China.
"It is rather simple technology," he said. "We not only sell this to domestic people here, and they sell them to anybody, but you can get them from China, and the Chinese will sell them to others.
"They have been used by the enemy in the war. It's of grave concern because you don't know who is friendly or not," Mr. Stupak added.
Newsweek magazine first reported in 2007 that 4,800 such patches had been sold inadvertently in 2006 to 23 U.S. and Canadian companies by an Arizona-based company, Government Liquidation. The patches were still sewn onto uniforms that were sent out.
The GAO was able to purchase the patches from a New York-based military-supply dealer, but did not identify the seller's name.
"An enemy fighter wearing these [infrared] flags could potentially pass as a friendly service member during a night combat situation, putting U.S. troops at risk," the June 4 report said. "Nevertheless, these items are completely legal to buy and sell within the United States."
The report followed up on a 2008 GAO study that exposed the fact that military-surplus items, such as spare parts for fighter jets, could be purchased on eBay and Craigslist. That same year, an NBC team also was able to procure the infrared patches and have them sent to a mailing address in Amman, Jordan. Earlier, the Associated Press reported that F-14 spare parts had found their way to Iran from U.S. suppliers after the Pentagon sold the equipment to military wholesalers.[...]
"Since the beginning of warfare, people have been dressing up as the enemy to infiltrate," he said. "We certainly have done this in the past to our enemies, and our enemies have done this to us."
Mr. Keane, who played a key role in developing the counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq, added, "There are other safeguards in addition to [these patches]. A visual identification and other identification is in the soldier's possession. There are multiple things that are being checked. When it comes to the tactical situation, infrared certainly helps identify where we are, but there is also a dialogue that is taking place describing the situation."
But "it would seem to me that something we are using to help identify ourselves should not be available to the general public, and it should be something that is only acquired through military channels," Mr. Keane said.