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Force Protection Moves from Bases to Battlefield

Category: Defence Industry


As casualties continue to mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department is seizing on technology to protect combat soldiers from snipers, mortars and roadside bombs. As of early-June, more than 1,660 U.S. personnel had died in Iraq, and 12,762 had been wounded. In the wider war on terrorism—including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines and Djibouti—another 188 had died and 472 had been wounded.

As these conflicts have dragged on, the whole concept of force protection has changed dramatically, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has dealt with the issue repeatedly during a military career that included four combat tours.

For a long time, force protection didn’t receive the attention it deserved, said McCaffrey, now an independent national security and terrorism analyst.

“The low point was Khobar Towers,” he told National Defense. In 1996, a terrorist truck bomb struck the towers, which housed U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia. “That attack—which killed or wounded 300 of our people—was absolutely preventable.”

Even as recently as the 2001 attack on the Pentagon, “we didn’t know what we were doing,” McCaffrey noted. Since then, however, improvements have been made.

No longer is force protection largely a matter of stacking sandbags and stringing concertina wire. “Now, we’re seeing technology—and the people using it—performing miracles,” McCaffrey said. “Technology is not only saving thousands of lives, but it also is providing an overwhelming deterrent capability.”

Some of the equipment being deployed is so formidable that terrorists are dissuaded from launching attacks, he said.

McCaffrey got a close look at the latest technology during the fifth biennial Force Protection Equipment Demonstration, which was held recently at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va. The event is sponsored by the Defense Department’s Physical Security Equipment Action Group, which is made up of representatives from each of the services and the Defense Treat Reduction Agency.

The amount of equipment on display has increased tremendously over the years, said a spokesman, retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Joe Houle. The first FPED, held shortly after the Khobar Towers attack, exhibited force-protection products from 184 vendors and was intended primarily for the military services. The focus was on protecting U.S. military installations at home and abroad.

FPED V attracted more than 500 companies showing off more than 2,500 pieces of equipment designed for use by U.S. and foreign military troops; federal, state and local police officers; emergency-response teams, and prison guards.

This year, more than in the past, the emphasis seemed to be on equipment that could help hold down U.S., coalition and civilian casualties in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

For example, Kontek of New Madrid, Mo., displayed a family of portable steel structures that are 75 percent lighter than concrete shelters and strong enough to withstand 81 mm and 120 mm mortar shells, according to operations manager Roger Allen Nolte.

“We test fired mortar shells into them, and they didn’t penetrate,” he said. Mortars are popular weapons of choice among insurgents because they are highly mobile, he said.

Kontek’s modular structures “can be used as sleeping quarters, guard shacks, office space, shops, even dining facilities,” he said.

The structures, 9.5 feet high, come as small as 8 feet by 8 feet and as long as 45 feet. They can be outfitted with built-in, foldaway bunks, gun racks or workstations. One canopy design can serve as covered parking for trucks or aircraft, Nolte said.

Special Tactical Services LLC, of Virginia Beach, Va., exhibited a four-foot-high portable shield designed to replace sandbag and concrete emplacements at security checkpoints at military bases and ports. The shields, which are used by all the services, have been deployed in Afghanistan for about a year, according to company spokesman Dale McClellan.

The barriers —called Modular Armored Security Shields—are constructed of three-eighth-inch armor plating able to withstand repeated hits from virtually any shotgun, handgun or rifle, he said.

The shields are intended to protect guards from the chest and below. “We assume they’ll be wearing helmets and body armor to protect their upper portions,” McClellan said.

The shields can be fitted with crew-served weapons, such as the M-60 7.62 mm and M-2 .50 caliber machine guns, enabling guards to shoot while minimizing their exposure. The structure’s walls are built at a 20-degree downward angle to help deflect incoming rounds, McClellan noted.

Unmanned vehicles are being adapted for roles in force protection. Foster-Miller, of Waltham, Mass., demonstrated a ground robot about half the size of a riding lawn mower that was mounted with an M249 5.56 mm squad automatic weapon.

The vehicle, called a Talon Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Direct-Action System, also can be outfitted with an M16 rifle, M240 machine gun, .50 caliber sniper rifle, 40 mm grenade launcher or M202 antitank rocket, explained General Manager Robert E. Quinn.

“It can perform urban combat missions, armed reconnaissance and perimeter defense,” Quinn said. Like a tank, Talon is equipped with tracks, giving it an all-terrain, all-weather capability, he noted. The tracks can be removed, allowing the vehicle to move on paved roads and streets like an automobile or a truck, he added.

With high-tech optics and night-vision technology, Talon “has a very precise aiming capability,” he said. “See that truck on the far side of the air field?” He indicated a vehicle about half a mile away. Then, using a attaché case-sized control unit, he zoomed in the lens of a camera mounted on the robot. Suddenly, the truck loomed large on the control unit’s monitor.

“I could take out that truck with the flip of a switch,” Quinn said. “Perhaps a skilled sniper could do that, but not without putting himself at risk.” The Talon can be operated from a distance of 300 to 400 meters, out of sight from enemy shooters, he asserted.

Talons also can be equipped to detect chemical and radiological weapons and to dispose of unexploded ordnance, including roadside bombs. They have completed more than 20,000 explosive-ordnance disposal missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, Quinn noted.

Another vehicle being put to use in force protection is the Segway human transporter. This two-wheeled, electric-powered, self-balancing vehicle, made by Segway LLC, of Bedford, N.H., is a cross between a bicycle and a chariot.

At FPED, Segway attracted a lot attention from security personnel from all of the services. Marine Lance Cpl. Elizabeth Boylan, who helped provide security at the event, took time to try it out. “It would be useful for patrols,” she said.

The Segway goes up to 12.5 miles per hour. It can be outfitted with all-terrain tires, fenders, saddlebags and cargo racks.

RF Intelligent Systems Inc., of Oak Hill, Va., demonstrated a Segway equipped with its mobID ruggedized, handheld biometric computer. “MobID offers a lot of security features, including 2D facial recognition, 500 [dots-per-inch] fingerprint technology and barcode reading,” said David Handcock, marketing director. “Putting it on a Segway gives a security guard the ability to gather and transmit a lot of information while on the move.”

Some of the equipment is intended to help security units do a better job inspecting civilian vehicles and performing patrols. Salient Manufacturing & Security Products Inc., of Brampton, Ontario, has developed a family of handheld, lightweight mirrors, called “Portable Detectives.”

The mirrors are “a low-tech way of inspecting cars and trucks passing through a checkpoint for bombs,” said the company president, Beth Gravelle. “They speed up the process of moving traffic through a security point.”

The Portable Detectives come with handles ranging in length from three to eight feet, and they can be equipped with battery-powered lights and even lightweight wheels, she said.

The M-II FlashCam looks like a traditional, long flashlight, but it does a lot more than that, said Jon W. Blanks, general manager of the manufacturer, mobileLED of San Antonio, Texas.

“It includes a powerful flashlight—with 85,000 candlepower—but it also has a video camera system and night vision,” he said. “You can instantly download images to your laptop, desktop or on-board computer.”

The 17-inch long M-II is designed for use by tactical military units, EOD teams and law enforcement agencies of all sorts. It is waterproof and shock resistant, Blanks said.

Another product intended to survive tough treatment is the Zx20 Ballistic Camera, offered by Extreme CCTV, of Burnaby, British Columbia. The company subjected the camera, which is designed for surveillance in harsh environments, to a live-fire demonstration by Marines from Quantico’s Weapons Training Battalion.

The Marines peppered the device with rounds from an M9 9 mm pistol and M16 5.56 mm and M14 7.62 mm rifles. The Zx20 was pockmarked with hits, but “the camera still works,” said the company president, Jack Gin. “We have video shots of the shooter.”

Some devices are meant to prevent civilian casualties. General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, of Redmond, Wash., exhibited a portable vehicle-arresting barrier. The PVAB is a system that automatically releases a net to trap a vehicle attempting to speed through a checkpoint.

During a demonstration, the net captured a five-ton truck moving at 45 miles per hour. The system can be set up in 10 to 15 minutes, said senior manufacturing and test engineer John Osterhout.

“This thing can save a lot of civilian lives in Iraq,” Osterhout said. Specifically, he said, it could help prevent tragic mishaps, such as the killing of an Italian intelligence agent at a U.S. checkpoint earlier this year. “If we want to regain the high ground over there, we should be using more technologies like this and doing less shooting.”

Sometimes, the demonstrations did not go as planned. During a blast-mitigation exercise, conducted by Quantico’s explosive ordnance detachment and designed to show the capabilities of the Counterterrorism Technologies Corporation’s portable bomb neutralizer, three pounds of C-4 plastic explosives blew a hole in the half-inch steel floor of the device.

“Wow, I’ve never seen that before,” said company representative Tony Fox. He was quick to point out that the explosion did not penetrate deep into the ground beneath the neutralizer and to note that the device would never be used again. “It’s a one-time use thing. We use it once and throw it away.”

Harold Kennedy, NDIA

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