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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Scientists Encounter Familiar Problems As They Turn Focus to Asia-Pacific (UPDATED)
Scientists Encounter Familiar Problems As They Turn Focus to Asia-Pacific (UPDATED)
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Defense Department is attempting to align its research priorities with a new strategy that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region.
 
But military scientists still find themselves hammering away at some of the same problems of the past decade.
 
Two of the preeminent challenges facing forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — troops being weighed down by heavy gear and the enemy’s successful use of improvised explosive devices — remain top priorities across the armed services’ science and technology programs, officials said last week at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual science and engineering technology conference.
 
When asked to name his three most burning technology needs, U.S. Central Command science advisor Martin Drake said: “Counter IED, counter IED and counter IED.”
 
When roadside bombs first began killing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, then CENTCOM Commander Gen. Tommy Franks stuck his finger in Drake’s chest and told him to make it stop. The Pentagon has spent billions since then on bomb jammers, route-clearing robots and mine-resistant vehicles and even created a whole new bureaucracy, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, devoted solely to the problem.
 
But no amount of technology or strategy has been able to conquer the threat. About half of the more than 6,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 were the result of IED blasts. Each week seems to bring news of another attack. Last week, an Army staff sergeant from Indiana died in Afghanistan after his vehicle was hit by a makeshift bomb.
 
The Pentagon and defense industry must remain focused on IEDs because they won’t disappear when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, said Navy Capt. Fred Gaghan, technology chief at JIEDDO’s requirements and integration division.
 
Not counting occurrences in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been an average of 600 IED events per month worldwide the past two years, he said. The tactic is prevalent in places such as Bangkok, Somalia, Syria and Norway. Colombia and Pakistan are home to the largest number of attacks, Gaghan noted. (See correction below.)
 
The best anti-IED tool is a well-trained force, the captain said. But troops also could use some help from science.
 
JIEDDO is looking for technology that allows for “pre-detonation” of the bombs. In other words, troops would be able to make an IED explode at the time and place of their choosing. They also need systems that could help them locate and avoid bombs made from nonstandard materials. The weapons employed against coalition forces have generally been low-tech, but adversaries in the future will have more access to sophisticated technology, including ultra-thin and flexible electronics, a variety of command mechanisms and more advanced ways to conceal the bombs, Gaghan said.
 
Troops need more operational intelligence that allows them to understand and attack the networks involved in obtaining and deploying IEDs. There are a number of players involved, including drug traffickers and other criminals. But bomb components often are unwittingly passed to insurgents and terrorists through legitimate business deals, Gaghan said.
 
“They are difficult to counter,” Drake said. “Lots of folks have tried, but we have been unable to wipe that one from the battle space.”
 
Officials need ideas from industry, he said. If a company calls him up and says “the words counter-IED, we’re going to take some notes,” Drake said.
 
The Army, too, is still trying to figure out one of its toughest problems. Partly because of budget pressures, the service’s research community has come up with a list of problems they want to solve by 2017. And it’s no surprise that lightening troops’ loads remains at the top of that list.
 
The Army’s focus is on small units — squads, fire teams and crews who quite literally carry the burden of electronic systems, body armor and logistical weight as they travel from mission to mission.
 
Scientists need to look at every aspect of the problem, including food, guns, ammunition, water and communications equipment, said Marilyn Freeman, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology. This means making lightweight weapons, armor and devices and distributing the weight properly on a soldier’s frame. Research also may yield tools that help troops determine what exactly they need to take with them on a mission, Freeman said.
 
An individual soldier should never have to carry more than 50 percent of his body weight, she said.
 
The problems of IEDs and overburdened troops will continue to occupy military researchers and funding, officials said. But the Pentagon also needs some new ideas, said Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.
 
The focus must be on preparing to deal with conflicts in nations where an enemy is more capable of keeping U.S. forces out, Shaffer said. This means upping the ante on electronic attack, cyber-operations, missile defense, surface-to-surface ship missiles, undersea warfare and hypersonic technology.
 
It means relying more on autonomous systems, long-range strike and precision attack. The Air Force has been conducting studies and tests to be able to demonstrate by 2017 a hypersonic cruise missile that can travel more than 500 nautical miles. Navy scientists have been researching supercavitating torpedoes, as well as using laser communications for surface and underwater vessels to talk to each other.
 
The demand for electronic weapons also continues to grow, said Air Force Maj. Gen. William N. McCasland, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
 
“We think microwave [weapons] are ready for useful offensive actions against industrial controls,” McCasland said. There are near-term defensive applications for lasers, too, against things such as infrared search-and-track systems and imaging infrared seekers, he said.
 
The Air Force is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on next-generation lasers. The research is the culmination of what McCasland called a “wholesale shift in gears” that has seen the service go from a heavy focus on chemical lasers “to a real healthy return into electric lasers.”
 
Advanced technologies are needed for the diplomatic part of war, too, Drake said.
 
He put improved language translators near the top of CENTCOM’s technology wish list. Such devices can fundamentally change the way CENTCOM and other commands carry out their missions, he said.
 
“We operate in areas where there are so many dialects, it’s difficult to interact with the people we are working with, the civilian population,” Drake said. “It is about that support to civilians, winning their hearts and minds. If we can’t communicate with them, it makes it extremely difficult.”

CORRECTION: Gaghan noted the growing prevalence of IEDs globally, citing their use in several countries, including Norway. He did not imply that IED attacks had become common in that country.

Comments

Re: Scientists Encounter Familiar Problems As They Turn Focus to Asia-Pacific

The country of Bangkok? This guy is leading the way! Go Navy! Stick to the water
X-Man at 4/23/2012 12:14 PM

Re: Scientists Encounter Familiar Problems As They Turn Focus to Asia-Pacific

Except that the IED threat will be in the water, not on the ground. Hence the need for better counter-mine equipment.
Tony at 4/24/2012 7:22 PM

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