Pentagon to Modernize Bomb Disposal Technology

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Man transportable robot system increment 2

Photo: Army

Worrisome threats from a resurgent Russia and provocative China have made great power competition the No. 1 topic among military officials and analysts, but it wasn’t so long ago that counterterrorism and improvised explosive devices were the buzzwords du jour in the halls of the Pentagon.

During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there was no greater threat than IEDs — low-cost bombs that were deployed on roadsides and other areas frequented by warfighters — that killed or injured thousands of U.S. troops.

Officials working in the explosive ordnance disposal world are warning that the threat persists, and moreover could impact great power competition.

“The improvised threat isn’t going away,” said Lisa Swan, director of counter-improvised threat technologies at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “I don’t know how nation-states will use improvised threats — obviously no one does — but I don’t know why they wouldn’t.”

Swan defined an IED as a device or system — as well as its associated tactics, techniques and procedures — that is designed, fielded and employed unconventionally to adversely affect U.S. forces and their partners. However, that definition may need to be tweaked in the future depending on how such weapons are deployed by more advanced adversaries, she said.

Nation-states may utilize asymmetric weapons in future fights. Such tactics would slow down the U.S. military’s ability to operate and be a major distraction, she noted.

“Last time around, [the enemy] controlled our freedom of movement,” she said. “They limited what we could do.”

She added: “My hope would be that we’ll take what we’ve learned about how to respond to those threats — including the networks behind them — and apply that as we move forward into great power competition.”

Army Col. Stephen Kavanaugh, deputy director of the NATO Counter-IED

Centre of Excellence, said that despite the high human toll that IEDs took in Iraq and Afghanistan, nowadays not enough attention is being paid to the challenge.

“The United States remains the leader and the litmus test amongst a lot of capabilities within NATO,” he said. “If the United States … [says] that it’s a priority, it’s going to maintain and be a priority within NATO.”

But for years now, with the renewed focus on great power competition, there has been a feeling within the Pentagon and some military circles that IEDs are not a priority, Kavanaugh said.

“COIN, counterinsurgency, are bad words,” he said. “But when you change out ... counterinsurgency for hybrid [warfare] it becomes and maintains a relevancy. And that’s something that needs to be reiterated because otherwise we will lose the bubble on that knowledge and expertise that we’ve gained over the last 15-plus years of blood and sweat and loss.”

Despite the strategic shift away from counterinsurgency, the military is working to modernize its EOD systems.

For the Army, updating its equipment will be key to executing its multi-domain operations 2028 operating concept that was released last year, said Maj. James Alfaro, EOD capability development chief at the Army’s Capability Development Integration Directorate.

The operating concept focuses on phases of warfare such as compete, penetrate, disintegrate, exploit and recompete, he said.

“The expectation here is that our adversaries are going to multiple layers of standoff [weapons] in all domains to separate U.S. forces and our allies in time, space and distance in order to defeat us,” he said. “To counter that, EOD formations need to be resilient, mobile and unpredictable in a manner that enables the supported formations to engage adversaries from a position of advantage.”

The service is pursuing three robotic programs of record, he noted. “This will be a vast improvement from a multitude of [commercial-off-the-shelf] solutions that are out there,” he added.

These systems will also come with the means to conduct technology refreshes so the Army isn’t stuck with the same platform for years, he noted.

Louis Analure, product manager for unmanned ground vehicles at the project manager office for force protection, said that over the past year the service has made strides in pursuing robotic systems.

The Army is focused on developing three platforms: the man transportable robotic system increment 2, or MTRS inc 2; the common robotic system-individual, or CRS(I); and the common robotic system-heavy, or CRS(H), he said. All three utilize an open architecture platform.

MTRS is a medium-sized platform and weighs 165 pounds. The service anticipates the system — which is being built by FLIR Systems — will be fielded in the second quarter of fiscal year 2020.

A variety of payloads can be swapped onto the system which will allow for new capabilities to come into play quickly, efficiently and in a flexible way as the service faces a changing battlefield in the future, he noted.

The platform will be able to detect, neutralize and clear explosive hazards; detect, identify, sample and quantify chemical agents; and detect, identify and counter improvised explosive devices, according to Analure’s presentation slides.

The common robotic system-individual — which is being manufactured by QinetiQ North America — is a small-sized robot that will be fielded starting in the second quarter of fiscal year 2020, Analure said.

The technology will provide standoff short-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; remote chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection; remote explosive obstacle countermeasures; remote EOD operations; and remote clearance of dangerous areas, according to his slides.

Meanwhile, the common robotic system-heavy, which will weigh around 700 pounds, is currently in a solicitation period with an award expected in September or October, and fielding slated for fiscal year 2020, he said.

The platform is meant to replace the Army’s robotic ordnance neutralization system and remove warfighters from direct exposure to hazardous threats while also investigating, neutralizing and disposing of explosive ordnance, according to Analure’s slides. Additionally, the system is intended to have a lift capacity of 275 pounds, a speed capability of 6 mph and a battery life of 7 hours.

“We’ve managed to accelerate programs,” Analure said. “We’ve learned from each program and applied that learning to the subsequent program with good success.”

The Army also plans to equip EOD soldiers with unmanned aerial vehicles, Alfaro said. These platforms will give troops improved ISR capabilities and payload delivery.

Additionally, the service plans to make its platforms smarter through the integration of autonomy and automatic threat recognition, he added.

“Enabling EOD robotic platforms with autonomy and artificial intelligence … can assist in reducing the cognitive load on the EOD soldier and increase the standoff [range] that enables us to support ... whatever formation we may be supporting,” he said.

The service is also pursuing a next-generation advanced bomb suit, or NGABS, for EOD technicians, said Cary Ferguson, deputy program manager for soldier protective equipment. The system — which is being developed alongside Army Futures Command — will give soldiers an increased range of motion and be modular and scalable.

Over the past year, the program has grown substantially, moving from just a few small efforts to now being in source selection for a developmental contract, he noted.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he said.

Previously, the service had been utilizing commercial-off-the-shelf technology, but it is now pursuing a program of record.

“We’ve taken the requirements from the ground up and … this is going to be [a] completely enhanced capability,” Ferguson said.

Its modularity means “you don’t have to wear everything,” Ferguson said. “There will be some options for the technician to wear different pieces of the suit based on the mission.”

It will also be lighter, with a 10 percent threshold weight reduction and a 40 percent objective weight reduction, according to his slides.

Additionally, there will be increased protection levels to include 360-degree fragmentation, blast, impact, flame and ballistic coverage.

“We’re going to leverage existing and future personal protective equipment,” Ferguson said. “The suit will integrate with what the EOD soldiers are wearing when they get out to the site, so they won’t be vulnerable when they exit the vehicle to don the suit. They will have that protection on.”

There will also be better integration of lighting technology that will allow technicians to work in nighttime conditions, Ferguson said.

The service is also working on an integrated sensor suite with a heads-up display in the helmet of the suit, he added.

“That’s the really difficult part to do, but we’re moving forward with that,” he said.

Additionally, the Army plans to increase the sizing options available for the suit which are currently limited, Ferguson noted. The target is having the suit fit the fifth to the 95th percentile of EOD techs.

Brig. Gen. Heidi Hoyle, chief of ordnance and commandant of the Army’s Ordnance School, said the service is approaching the modernization of its EOD equipment in a holistic way.

“[We’re] running programs, not purchasing commercial-off-the-shelf without the sustainment trail behind it, without a full lifecycle,” she said. “Commercial-off-the-shelf is a great way to get technology to the battlefield, but then it leaves these company commanders without the sustainment piece behind it.”

The service cannot be at the mercy of contracting terms on the battlefield during ground combat operations, she noted.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s counter-improvised threat technologies office is also pursuing new capabilities, Swan said. For example, it is working on an airborne system that is capable of rendering ammonium nitrate — a vital ingredient in homemade explosives — ineffective from a distance while also minimizing damage to surrounding communities.

Ammonium nitrate has been used in some of the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, as well as attacks on U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. It has also been widely employed by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the Islamic State, according to Swan.

“In the past, we were sweeping the ground … looking for fertilizer or ammonium nitrate,” she said. However, there is now a “demand signal from our forward-deployed warfighters ... for a solution to neutralize homemade explosive material from an airborne platform.”

The office has funded research that led to a handful of demonstrations, she said. 

Topics: Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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