Defence IQ recently investigated the current gamut of new gadgets on offer to military and police forces confronted with the task of defeating the growing tide of explosive ordnance being used among insurgencies, terrorists, and even criminal organisations.
At a London-based industry event, we met up with Major Chris Hunter QGM, a former British Army Bomb Disposal Operator in Iraq, now a senior IED analyst, and the inspiration and advisor on the recent Hollywood film ‘The Hurt Locker’.
On the subject of counter-IED technology, Hunter points first to the nature of the bomb itself and the ease with which it grows in sophistication.
“If you look at the IRA, for example, who were our primary threat for thirty years, the level of sophistication they achieved in that time – and they were the best bombmakers in the world – was superseded in just 12 months when we went into Iraq in 2003-2004,” he says.
“That’s just continued at a rapid and alarming rate. It was superseded in Afghanistan in just 18 months.”
As the IED presents a variety of problems, Hunter confirms that there is now a need for technology to respond in kind, offering technologies that are not specific to one solution, but to many.
“As every IED specialists will say, there is no silver bullet. But if you’re talking about the Defeat the Device component, where we’re looking at technologies to detect and neutralise, we have to really focus on multi-sensor technologies.
“The reason for that is that many companies out there will identify products that they think will help and assist. There’s that classic maxim in business: make what you can sell, don’t sell what you can make. And quite often companies in defence will have a product and think that it’s brilliant – for example, an explosive detector – but actually, does it detect metallic content? Does it detect buried IEDs? Does it detect electronics?
“If you roll out a platform that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but only has an explosive detector on it, it’s not actually going to be a force multiplier.”
With that in mind, we explored just some of the interesting designs and concepts engineered by international industry and the bright minds behind them.
Guartel Technologies Ltd currently has an enviable contract with the UK MoD in supplying handheld command wire and metal detection devices to British and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and afar – from the classic ground penetrator owned by any bona-fide treasure hunter, to the familiar ‘wands’ seen at airport security gates.
Given that the IED is believed by most to be not only an enduring threat, but also a developing one, a nonstop process for improvement is fundamental to any manufacturer producing counter-IED solutions. Time, however, is as much of a threat in itself.
“We run a continuous R&D programme to keep up with current threats and to predict future threats, but the lifetime of the equipment from design to manufacture takes at least 6 months,” says Managing Director Cliff Wright.
“We have produced things for urgent operational requirements (UORs), such as the small handheld detectors, which took us 6 months to develop and we deployed 10,000 to Afghanistan within that 6 month period, and that was designed in 2010 for a specific threat that forces were facing there.”
For obvious reasons, Wright could not go into detail about further development at present aside from stating that there is a new requirement calling for detection equipment to be “tweaked”.
“Nothing’s undetectable, we can always come up with a solution, but the time taken to meet that threat is the key factor.”
Having spoken with other industry players in the C-IED domain, this is proving to be perhaps the most significant problem to today’s efforts where technology is concerned – not necessarily finding what works, but making sure it doesn’t sit on the shelf and pass its sell-by-date before it reaches its valuable utility.
Diffusion of the device takes a multitude of forms in Afghanistan, from high-end robotic solutions, to the traditional and dreaded hands-on approach that was once the only option available to the noble sapper.
In regards to the former, Defence IQ watches a crowd mesmerized by a demonstration of Northrop Grumman’s unmanned ground vehicles designed for disabling IEDs.
Included in the line-up is the WHEELBARROW Mk9; a tracked system, capable of climbing a 45 degree stairway, travelling at 5km/h and reaching a dextrous arm to a distance of over 5 metres. Currently in service with both the UK MoD and Joint US EOD forces, it is considered by many to be the benchmark for remote IED disposal.
Yet even more intriguing is the next-generation system on display developed as the successor to WHEELBARROW. The six-wheel drive CUTLASS won a contract with the MoD back in 2006 and has since delivered proven enhancements from interchangeable arms to more powerful cameras, and remote control extending to a kilometre away.
Richard Mears is the Group Business Development Director for Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems, and given that CUTLASS has won his company one of four security industry awards in the past 24 hours, he is more than happy to brief us on NG’s solutions to defeating the device.
“Most important to us is understanding how the business needs to get done,” says Mears.
“There’s a lot of technology here, but as you can see around the stand, there’s a fair amount of our employees and our partners from the community. So it’s understanding the problem from an operational perspective before applying any level of technology to deal with a varied range of threats.
“Specific to IED, you’ll see the classic EOD robot that has evolved so much now because the type of threat, whilst remaining ever-present, is very much evolving.
“The generations of robots we have here span from the movement of heavy objects via a tethered operator to the semi-autonomous software driven platform with a highly dextrous manipulator arm to get around very awkward areas, and to have incredible accuracy – say in identifying a command wire and then moving an object so that detonation doesn’t occur.”
Mears turns our attention to a flat screen displaying a map of IED incident areas within a given locale. This is the lynchpin for what is essentially a holistic approach to disarming a device from start to finish.
“Whilst you have hardware that acts as a platform to sense and disrupt a physical threat, you’ve also got the intelligence now to link to that sensor to determine what to do for the wider area of protection, how to model that before you send an asset to a scene, how to prepare for any given type of scenario, and then how to play back what actually happened to see if your planning was in line with what you expected.”
This emphasis on broad-picture intelligence and building on the back of live operations is appropriate given to the CIED community’s ever-increasing push towards neutralising an IED threat before the explosive is even buried.
Field Forensics Canada is just one of the major players in providing the warfighter with the tools to continue investigating the emplacement of the explosive itself, and steering some progress towards a prevention of another explosive incident. The company claims to offer an accurate portable identification test for trace amounts or bulk amounts of explosives, and pre-cursors to explosives. Current customers include all services within the US military, as well as Canadian Forces, Australian Forces and police units worldwide.
“There’s a greater requirement for more accurate technology now, and a greater requirement to provide more accurate evidence for the follow-up,” explains Vice President Jason Henry.
“Initially, it was just a matter of providing identification, but now it’s a matter of providing evidence for criminal procedures. You really have to stay one step ahead. We’re looking more at the materials used in making the IED, not necessarily the IED itself.”
The idea is to ensure that even the troops on the ground, who probably aren’t trained chemists, have the equipment to identify substances that trace back to a specific source, and make a quick judgement on how to respond.
The prime example is ammonium nitrate, a ubiquitous fertilizer now being used on a regular basis to make the most low-cost IEDs in parts of Afghanistan, despite the fact that it is illegal in that part of the world. Shipped around in large bags, it is almost impossible to differentiate from other legitimate fertilizers – such as those made with urea or phosphate – without specialist equipment.
The science behind these forensics kits has been around since the early 2000s, but according to the manufacturer, the company has managed to build its reputation based on the high-level of testing undergone throughout the intermediate years with the cooperative involvement of the military and scientific minds further afield.
“We’ve had testing through the US Navy labs, the National Center for Forensic Sciences, and a series of international government-recognised labs,” says Henry.
“It’s a matter of that information being shared amongst others. Everyone wants to test it in their own facilities, and they all come back with the same [positive] results.
“I would like to see a greater sharing of that information amongst allied countries. To date, really where we’re proving ourselves is not just in the labs but how we’re testing it with the customers, and they’re testing in increments and coming back to order.
“We’re introducing new products all the time, particularly on the precursor identifiers. There’s a great deal of feedback from the field saying ‘look, we have to be able to detect this’, or ‘we’re seeing this specific precursor, can you bring us something?’ so that’s what we’ll do. We’ve got full time PhD chemists on our staff who are really working to that end on a daily basis.”
Not content to simply sell the equipment to soldiers and authorities in the thick of these front line situations, Field Forensics also helps train users in correct procedure.
“They’re extremely to use. The complex part is in the chemistry and that’s something we pre-measure within our kits. The user side of it is quite simple – and so that’s where we excel – but we do encourage training just so that there are no misconceptions about how the product works, what its limitations are and how it should be applied.”
Ultimately the use of any high-tech equipment falls to the know-how of those operating it and the wisdom of commanders to employ it in a way that is strategically effective, cost-effective, and integrated within the defined overall procedure.
“Make certain that your procedures are in the best interests of your own forces on the ground,” Henry advises.
“You want to make sure that the training is as accurate as possible and then provide them with something that doesn’t require a consistent amount of retraining or calibration out in the field because that eventually just gets lost. Stick with the things that are reliable and simple.”
Where detection factors in, it would seem that the big technology gap is in keeping the solutions condensed and lightweight, considering that the ultimate user is an individual soldier or police officer, who won’t always have the ability to carry the complete IED toolkit in their arsenal.
“The next ambition would be to have one single piece of equipment which could detect the spectrum of threats, whether that would be command wire IEDs, low-metal content, and so on,” says Wright.
“Having one solution is the ideal, but at the moment, that’s a long way away.”
As for disruption, the aim is perhaps more obvious – take the person out of the picture, and away from immediate danger. However, while robots are undoubtedly a giant leap for man-in-theatre, the human element and its superior intelligence is still the vital component when it comes to analysis and response. As such, the sophistication of the sensors on board now gives the operator a more educated set of data to respond to, but a completely autonomous solution remains out of reach. The question is, when it comes to the simple disposal of a device, is it feasible that we may one day see robots that are able to identify and react without any input from its master?
“That may well be the future for us,” Mears admits.
“There are a number of presets within our robots that, given a certain type of object with certain weights, where there’s a bomb disposal bin, the robot could be programmed to pick up the threat and deliver it to the bin within a pre-set configuration, if it was straightforward… but how many things are straightforward?
“Can you plan for a certain set of conditions to be ever-present?”
Meeting these technology gaps may be a long road, but with a government in the passenger seat providing accurate directions, and a military willing to keep the engine ticking over, this shared journey is gradually becoming smoother.
Cliff Wright confesses: “A few years ago it was quite difficult to communicate – not with the military, but with people like DSTL, because they were very secretive. But now, [the MoD] has come up with a Counter IED Programme Office which facilitates communication between industry and the end user. So in the last 24-36 months, it’s got a lot better.
“For current users of the equipment, I like to get face-to-face feedback on how they find it on the ground – little things like is the battery in the right place? Is the switch in the right place? – and when we get feedback that way, we can feed that straight into our R&D and bypass the system where it normally would take a couple of months to get that information direct from DSTL and other people.”
Indeed the need to remain adaptive and in constant communication with all parties involved is a factor that is echoed throughout the day.
“We are embedded in these teams,” Richard Mears stresses.
“If it wasn’t for the close relationship with the end user community, we wouldn’t be able to constantly evolve, innovate and most importantly respect the way that they have to do their job.
“It is keeping danger at a distance, whether it’s at the intelligence end, through to the hard disposal.”
There is of course widespread consensus that an all-encompassing approach to the issue must be taken, but where technology comes into play, so must a budget.
Despite this era of economic downturn, militaries involved in major campaigns in the Middle East, and those looking at the IED as an enduring threat within future warzones, are consistently placing counter-IED efforts and financing near to the top of their priority lists.
Wright makes a final point to highlight how important investment in the UK alone has bolstered the wider community in better understanding how to suppress – and perhaps eventually vanquish – the IED.
“Generally if the British will have it, the other nations will follow suit,” he says.
“In essence, the UK MoD or taxpayer is funding R&D projects for the whole counter-IED community, the US, NATO, et cetera, so I think British industry is still the technology leader in this field.”
This is not to say that a hub like Britain can continue to go it alone. Of all the learning points on offer at an industry event, Major Hunter is the only man to summarise the point of it all.
“The one thing that industry really could do better, because they really do have so many resources available to them, is collaborative projects,” he says.
“Anybody out there who has got any sort of product or service or capability that they think may even vaguely potentially save people’s lives, or assist in the detection, defeat, or neutralisation of IEDs, or indeed the wider intelligence piece, they really must get it out there, get it seen, and start contacting the counter-IED forces to make sure those particular technologies can be fused into the existing effort.”
Contributor: Richard de Silva
Posted: 05/29/2012 12:00:00 AM EDT |