Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been a focal point of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq during the last decade. Sad to say, however, the use of IEDs is not exclusive to those countries or the region—it’s a global threat. In fact, more than 1,000 IED-related events occur outside of Afghanistan each month.
While the number and variety of counter-IED (CIED) solutions are being brought into service at an expanding rate, the threats continue to be varied and complex.
“This threat is not just about the devices, but also the networks,” commented David W. Small, chief, Communications Branch, Strategic Communications Division, Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). “Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations are moving into Africa and other hotspots around the globe.”
Add to this the fact that tactics, techniques and procedures are migrating between regions and proliferating as well. “Across the board we’re seeing an increase in cooperation––the sharing of funds, training and explosive materials,” Small said.
JIEDDO has been at the forefront of the counter-IED fight by funding, developing and delivering technologies and solutions aimed at saving lives and thwarting dangers posed by IEDs for nearly a decade. But as Small pointed out, there is no single solution to defeat this threat.
“We need to integrate a range of efforts––supported by a collaborative whole-of-governments approach to detect and neutralize threat networks and devices,” he said. “We rely on solutions to immediate IED threats from a variety of sources—industry, academia and national labs—and we encourage proactive teaming among these institutions to address defeating the IED.”
Industry Pushes the Boundaries
Defense contractors play an important role in developing technologies to counter IEDs, particularly given the fact that one of the largest challenges facing this problem is their sheer numbers.
“IEDs are relatively cheap to make and emplace, and they can have a significant impact on overseas contingency operations,” commented Wes Green, program director, BAE Systems. “In turn, ISR technology, while growing vastly over the past 12 years, is still struggling to keep pace with the demand from users.”
To help overcome this challenge, BAE Systems is continually working to develop cost-effective systems and tools that are plug and play with current ISR platforms in an effort to widen the audience its systems support.
“In addition, we are constantly working to push the boundaries of sensor imaging and processing in order to meet demand for intelligence products to defeat this persistent threat,” he said.
According to Green, BAE Systems began seeing changes in ISR technology about three years ago with the introduction of more advanced radar and imaging systems to help defeat IED networks at the tactical level.
“That is to say, using ISR to go after the materials as part of the network, not just the actors who were responsible for emplacing these devices,” Green commented. “As these technologies have matured, their promulgation on the battlefield has stepped up along with proving their worth.”
Green sees these technologies as being especially important in that they give commanders additional ISR data beyond traditional imagery, i.e., full motion video, in order to more effectively see IEDs prior to their detonation.
Today, BAE Systems delivers multiple suites of technology across the tactical ISR industry in order to disrupt IED networks.
“We see insurgent IED networks as needing a solutions-based approach in order to defeat them versus solely a technological approach,” Green added.
Consequently, BAE Systems is deeply involved in sensor technology for radar and advanced imaging sensors in an effort to see IEDs in new ways.
“This provides battlefield commanders with critical tools to more fully see how IED networks are evolving their tactics,” Green said.
Outside of sensor technology, BAE Systems has developed, fielded and is currently training advanced analytics tools, such as activity-based intelligence.
“These toolsets are being used by the intelligence community to help analysts quickly and effectively sort through the increasing volumes of ISR data and extract the critical pieces of intelligence in order to speed up the timelines of intelligence reporting,” Green said.
Lastly, BAE Systems has a significant tactical ISR and analysis footprint deployed overseas engaged in defeating IEDs. “The analysis teams are critical in supplying real-time intelligence support to our warfighters to disrupt IED networks,” he said.
Patrick McGlynn, program manager, BAE Systems, contends that among the latest trends in counter-IED technologies is wide area persistent surveillance (WAPS). He sees this as the most recent and effective ISR trend being used to counter IEDs on the battlefield today.
“It is superior to traditional ISR systems, which previously either observed large areas without the ability to provide detailed resolution of a particular target or provided high resolution views of specific targets––the so-called ‘soda straw’ perspective,” McGlynn said. “WAPS has proven its worth in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy seeks to blend into the local population.”
Going forward, Green expects that over the next five years this technology will continue to grow in numbers. “But I also see the technology maturing more into smaller tactical ISR sensors/systems that can be placed into the hands of more troops in dispersed locations,” he added. “Whereas before these troops––at the company or platoon level––may have only access to still images or full motion video from handheld UAVs, the day is coming where more advanced sensor technology and processing power will be available to tactical users at the forward edges of the battlefield.”
Mobile, Recoilless Disruptors
RoboteX Inc.’s involvement in CIED technologies focuses on mobile, recoilless disruptors. Eric Ivers, RoboteX president, contends that this technology, along with portability of CIED equipment, is one of the latest important trends.
“Speed of deployment––not necessarily speed getting to the IED, but speed getting the equipment ready to use at the site, is becoming more important,” Ivers emphasized. “Standoff distance has always been, and remains, a critical factor.”
RoboteX has been working on each of these areas.
“Making a robot light enough to carry in a backpack was a preliminary goal we met before introducing our first product a few years ago,” Ivers explained.
The company continues to reduce set up and deployment time, since many of these situations are time sensitive.
“We have just released a repeater system that allows standoff distance to be multiplied by the number of repeaters used,” he added. “We have developed an initiator that can be used with a recoilless disruptor, both mounted on the robot.”
Ivers explained that when an EOD team is deployed, they usually have the choice of several robotic systems. Some are large, heavy and expensive.
“Our robot is small and very portable (under 45 pounds, equipped with a five axis arm),” he said. “When a suspected IED is discovered, our robot is usually deployed first, since it can be easily carried by one man with a backpack and can be up and running in about four minutes.”
If the suspected IED is actually something harmless, that can be determined in a matter of minutes without having to haul out the heavier and slower to set up robots. If it is determined that the object is likely explosive, it can be dealt with on the spot with the Avatar system.
“If there is something that requires a bigger robot that can lift more weight, one can be called up,” Ivers explained. “But in over 90 percent of cases so far, the Avatar alone has handled the situation.”
The Avatar’s arms can open car and truck doors, open the back bays of trucks and open doors to buildings. If desired, it can usually pick up the IED and move it. With the percussion actuated non-electric disruptor mounted, it can also be used to disable the device. Lighter and quicker is often an advantage.
“Lower cost can be important as well, if the device does explode,” he added.
Given that IED technology is mostly unpredictable, Ivers emphasized that counter technology must be adaptive. “Triggering devices change all of the time, so we must be prepared to deal with those changes as they happen,” he said.
Ivers expects IEDs will become more powerful and lighter weight devices. Consequently, standoff distance becomes more important, as does detection capability.
Fusion of Multifunctional Capabilities
Executives at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) contend that the most significant trend in CIED technologies is the increasing fusion of multifunctional capabilities into a system of systems that gives the warfighter the protection and the real-time information he or she needs at the critical time and place in the battlespace.
“This fusion of capabilities will be enabled by robust network-centric systems that share common contextual databases and processes,” reported Paul Plemmons, corporate vice president, SNC’s Electronic Warfare/Range.
Examples of this trend will include the fusion of CIED and Electromagnetic Environment (EME) information both locally and across distributed networks to ensure first and foremost that the warfighter possesses the latest effective electronic countermeasures (ECM) information and secondly that he or she has timely and accurate situational awareness and early warning of where IED threats are likely to occur or have already been detected.
“Additionally, networked CIED technologies, such as jammers and ISR platforms will be deployed throughout the battlespace will act as distributed sensors,” Plemmons added. These sensors and systems will provide real-time mapping of the electromagnetic spectrum to electronic warfare officers using advanced planning and battle management tools.
“These tools will enable the commander and staff to continuously monitor and dominate the CIED fight by first arraying CIED assets during planning to best support the maneuver plan and then, during the execution of operations, by providing timely updated threat information to distributed CIED elements,” he said.
Near real-time EME and CIED battlespace information will also be fused with archived spectral and forensic CIED data. This will then be shared across the network, supporting data fusion and analyses that will result in improved situational awareness and effective CIED operations, including continuous attacks on enemy IED networks.
In order to realize multifunctional EW capabilities, SNC is leveraging the trend toward increased modularity and open architectures that will increase spectrum coverage. “The use of standard but flexible reprogrammable system modules linked by standard data buses and military networks will enable industry to innovate and stay current and ahead of constantly evolving threats, without the need to totally redesign the CIED system,” Plemmons remarked. “Modularity will also simplify training, software upgrades and logistics support.”
Another important trend Plemmons reports SNC seeing is an increased effort to reduce the size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements of future radio controlled IED (RCIED) technologies. “Significant SWaP reductions will be achieved by using advanced materials, adopting state-of-the-art electronics and radiofrequency (RF) components, and implementing more efficient EW techniques,” he said. Modularity will contribute to SWaP reduction by enabling rapid system reconfiguration based on interchangeable modules to address different mission needs. As a result of lower SWaP, future RCIED technologies will be more efficient and cost effective, thus reducing demands on the logistics systems while increasing operational reliability and availability and reducing total life cycle costs.
“As future CIED systems and technology improve, we anticipate a trend toward the integration of additional EW capabilities,” Plemmons added.
Plemmons sees these trends as important because they will provide the right CIED tools and technologies for countering any IEDs warfighters will likely encounter during future worldwide operations.
“As we move toward the future of 21st-century warfare, we can expect to see the proliferation of new radio technologies and more sophisticated IEDs,” Plemmons observed. “Over the past 12 years, our adversaries have learned that the IED is a proven and strategic weapon of choice. We will likely see increased usage of IEDs against the U.S. and its allies by potential nation-state adversaries and peer competitors.”
He sees the trends toward increased modularity and open architectures as important. According to Plemmons, they will enable the rapid development and implementation of new/improved advanced capabilities to counter increasingly sophisticated technologies. These trends will enable future CIED systems to detect and distinguish between weaponized threat signals and benign, non-malicious communications.
“These trends are important because we will be capable of integrating new capabilities into future ECM solutions easily and affordably without having to field a new system as often,” he said.
SNC is developing a number of advanced technologies to counter current and future IED threats. SNC has developed and fielded a full suite of counter RCIED systems, such as the Navy’s Joint Counter Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronics Warfare 3.1 man portable Counter Radio Electronic Warfare (CREW) system and more recently the lightweight Individual CREW system, Baldr, for the U.S. Army, as well as vehicle and platform mounted versions.
“A good case study on how SNC develops and deploys CIED technologies is the U.S. Army Baldr system,” Plemmons pointed out.
In the four months beginning in May 2012, SNC leveraged new technology, materials and approaches to rapidly adapt previously fielded and proven counter-IED technology into the lightweight Baldr system.
“This successful rapid development effort was necessary to meet an urgent Army requirement to provide smaller and lighter but highly effective CIED protection for individual dismounted soldiers,” he said.
SNC delivered production ready units for testing in August 2012, and in October 2012 the U.S. Army Contracting Command awarded SNC a production contract for over 3,000 Baldr systems. The Baldr systems were delivered on schedule in May 2013 and are deployed in operations today.
As the IED threats grow in complexity and variety, Plemmons maintains that the technology required to counter them has to become increasingly more capable and as a result more complex. “This increases the cost and complexity of future ECM systems,” he said. “If the trends we reviewed above are to be realized, future CIED technologies will require significant advances in technology, which will in turn require significant investments.”
According to Plemmons, these developments create one of the biggest challenges being faced today—affordability. “The challenge is how we cost-effectively provide advanced yet flexible and upgradeable CIED technologies at a life cycle cost our customers can afford.” he said.
Plemmons contends that one way to increase affordability is to increase the flexibility of systems configuration through modularity and open architectures. “Modularity allows modules to be easily swapped in and out and reconfigured for software and firmware upgrades,” he said. “These upgrades enable the system to keep pace with new and emerging threats and facilitate the use of new more capable solutions. Modularity also supports integration of new capabilities, as mentioned above.”
With the rate of change in electronics design, Plemmons regards this is an extremely important feature. “Modularity and open architectures should reduce the expense of costly future upgrades, thereby reducing total life cycle costs,” he added. “Additionally, as we cited above, SWaP reductions decrease logistics requirements and reduce total cycle costs.”
So where does Plemmons see CIED technology heading in the future? He maintains that future CIED solutions will be smaller and lighter with increased density of electronic packaging and use of modular and common components. “These solutions may integrate additional functionalities,” he said. “We can anticipate the improved employment of CIED capabilities through the use of advanced EW planning and management tools.”
RCIED Jammers are a Must Have
Airbus Defence and Space, a merger of Cassidian, Astrium and Airbus Military as of January 1, specializes in RCIED jamming. Hubert Piontek, Ph.D., product manager for jamming systems at Airbus Defence and Space, claimed that RCIED jammers have become must-have equipment.
Piontek observes a trend toward using RCIED jammers as sensors to achieve awareness of the RF spectrum usage across the complete operational theater.
“Ultimately, this leads to cross-over jamming systems that complement traditional large, high-powered tactical jamming systems by stand-in units that can dynamically operate in either counter-RCIED mode or in tactical communications jamming mode and provide valuable distributed ES capability,” he said.
In addition, Piontek observed that RCIED jammers are being used for interoperability in terms of co-existence. In other words, when different jammers meet, they must still be able to provide adequate protection. They are also being used for interoperability in terms of information sharing. In addition, there’s a trend toward self-adapting jammers that automatically incorporate knowledge gathered during missions to optimize their effectiveness.
Airbus Defence and Space is developing RCIED jammers in a variety of versions ranging from small-scale units protecting individual vehicles or personnel to convoy protection units. “We are developing technologies to drive the trends listed above,” Piontek said. “Counter-IED equipment is a must-have, ranging from metal detectors to RCIED jammers. It is required both for military users, as well as for law-enforcement and even NGO peacekeeping missions. Thus, it needs to be widely available to legitimate customers.”
For now, a price war is ongoing for these technologies. Piontek stressed that while this might seem favorable for customers, a lot of cheap, low-quality equipment is flooding the market. “This puts lives at risk and also inhibits further development,” he remarked.
Going forward, executives at Airbus Defence and Space see a convergence of counter-IED technologies with other technologies (e.g., high powered electromagnetics with RCIED jamming) into multi-role equipment that will help and ease fast deployment. ♦
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