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Military matters

Combating terrorism through technology

Marshall Billingslea examines how NATO is developing technology to counter increasingly sophisticated terrorism.

Terrorist target: NATO is examining how technologies
such as air bags and flak-resistant seats can be built
into existing and future rotary-wing aircraft (© US DoD )

The destructive capacity of terrorist groups is growing steadily as terrorists prove themselves adept at using modern technology for their own ends. In response, NATO Allies are working together to develop new and improved technologies to combat this increasingly sophisticated threat.

The attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001 are a horrific example of how modern technology - commercial aircraft hijacked and turned into cruise missiles - could be used for terrorist purposes. Using the internet, terrorists have also developed sophisticated and versatile communication techniques. And they have demonstrated the expertise to fabricate explosive devices out of a wide range of objects - from mobile phones to doorbells - and materials - from military explosives to commercial dynamite to improvised fertiliser mixes. Moreover, they have the ability to fashion highly sophisticated chemical explosives into every-day items.

Of even greater concern is the interest of these groups in chemical and biological weapons, as well as in radiological (and presumably) nuclear devices. The leaders of terrorist organisations have been explicit in their desire to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. This is clearly of serious concern and a threat to all nations.

At the Istanbul Summit, in addition to other decisions taken to enhance the Alliance's capabilities against terrorism, NATO leaders formally endorsed a Programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism. This Programme was launched by NATO's National Armaments Directors, who formally meet twice a year in a group known as the Conference of National Armaments Directors or CNAD, and is aimed at leveraging national expertise and research programmes to develop new and improved technologies to combat terrorism.

The Programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism is, in the first stages, focused on developing nine systems to help prevent specific forms of terrorist attack and to give militaries new, cutting-edge technologies to detect, disrupt and pursue terrorists.

Specifically, the initiative will lead to better ways for NATO militaries to prevent terrorist explosive devices - such as car bombs and roadside bombs - from functioning as intended, and to help find the bombs and the bomb-makers; improve the ability of bomb technicians to dispose of explosives, and to deal with the effects of a bomb attack; protect aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles; protect helicopters from rocket-propelled grenades; protect harbours and ships from explosive-packed speedboats and underwater divers; improve protection against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons; airdrop special operations forces and their equipment with precision; conduct intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition of terrorists; and counter mortar attacks.

To lead this effort, NATO has appointed a Counter-Terrorism Technology Coordinator to work for the Chairman of the CNAD and to oversee the work of a team of specialists from several NATO countries. The main groups of the CNAD - the Air Force, Navy, and Army Armaments Groups; the NATO Research & Technology Organisation; and the NATO Industrial Advisory Group - are the driving force behind the programme.

Countering improvised explosive devices

Improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs, are the current weapon of choice for terrorists and greatest cause of casualties among Allied forces and civilian populations in terrorist attacks. These weapons are deployed and employed using a wide range of means and techniques, including car and truck-bombs, roadside bombs and suicide bomber belts and jackets.

To address this threat, NATO is developing a detailed understanding of how terrorists construct and use these devices and the blast effects of each type. Once we know the variety of ways in which terrorists are able to manufacture these weapons, we will begin devising a variety of technologies to cause the bombs to malfunction as well as techniques to "sniff out" places where these bombs are manufactured and hidden. Spain has taken the lead within the CNAD in devising new techniques and capabilities in this area, and a major industrial effort has already begun.

Explosive ordnance disposal

Stockpiles of ordnance and unexploded munitions have frequently proved to be sources of weaponry for terrorist groups. In Iraq, for instance, the most frequent type of roadside bomb is the so-called "daisy chain" of artillery shells wired to one another by a single detonator cord. With US support, NATO is establishing a database documenting all kinds of unexploded ordnance found in key theatres of operation. This database will be a key enabler for bomb technicians who must decide how to dismantle terrorist bombs. In addition, under Norwegian and Slovak leadership, Allied bomb technicians will gather to discuss what new technologies, including robotics, new lightweight fibres and digital enablers, can improve protective gear and enhance dismantling capabilities and what standards should be established to help raise the Alliance's collective level of expertise.

Protection of aircraft against shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles

Al Qaida and affiliated groups have acquired and used man-portable, surface-to-air missiles, so-called MANPADS, to carry out a number of attacks, both successful and unsuccessful, on military and civilian aircraft. These include the failed attacks in Kenya against El Al flights in 2002, as well as successful strikes on military and commercial aircraft in Iraq. NATO experts are now conducting a rigorous testing and analysis programme to determine how missile seekers acquire and track their targeted aircraft. With this knowledge, it will be possible to optimise defensive systems to confuse, defeat, and destroy incoming missiles.

NATO's Programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism is developing systems to give militaries new, cutting-edge technologies to detect, disrupt and pursue terrorists
It is also possible to provide further protection to aircraft using a variety of non-technological means. A number of procedural counter-measures can be employed by both military and civil aviation communities, such as flight simulator time for pilots to train them how to deal with sudden engine loss. Through a combination of technical and non-technical methods, therefore, NATO intends to provide additional layers of protection for large, slow-moving aircraft against the shoulder-fired missile threat. A testing programme is ongoing and more field trials are scheduled for 2005.

Protection of helicopters from rocket-propelled grenades

Attacks on helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire have caused many casualties in recent conflicts. In response, NATO has begun developing packages to address self-protection and threat detection for helicopters, as well as means of countering these threats. NATO is now examining how technologies such as air bags and flak-resistant seats as well as RPG-resistant coatings and materials that were originally designed for armoured personnel carriers, can be built into existing and future rotary-wing aircraft. A partnership with industry has already been launched to refine these ideas.

Protection of harbours and ports

Since the efficient functioning of ports and harbours is fundamental to the global economy, it is essential that they be made as secure as possible. Terrorists have demonstrated the capacity to plan and execute sophisticated attacks against warships such as the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000, commercial vessels such as the French oil tanker Limburgh also off Yemen in 2002, and against port facilities such as the oil pipelines near Basra, Iraq. Further planned attacks have been successfully disrupted by NATO nations. Indeed, as a consequence of one foiled plot, NATO is now escorting merchant shipping through the Straits of Gibraltar as part of Operation Active Endeavour, the Alliance's mission to disrupt, deter and defend against terrorist activity in the Mediterranean.

Under Italian leadership and with the benefit of decades of expertise from NATO's Underwater Research Centre in La Spezia, Italy, the Alliance is conducting a variety of sea trials using new, cutting-edge technologies. The NATO programme is, for example, looking into the feasibility of creating surface and subsurface sensor nets capable of detecting and disabling terrorists, and is creating a new mechanism for underwater mine clearance that will exponentially speed up what is currently a lengthy, manpower-intensive process. NATO is also exploring innovative technologies to disable incoming speedboat engines, and is developing new procedures to improve the defensive capacity of warships against surface attack. A variety of trials have been held in 2004 in Italy and the Netherlands and more are planned for 2005.

Detection, protection and defeat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons

The 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo sect in which sarin gas was used remains a deeply disturbing example of the ability of terrorist groups to develop and employ chemical, and possibly biological, nuclear and radiological weapons. Al-Qaida documents recovered in Afghanistan and other information obtained by NATO governments point to a rudimentary but evolving terrorist capability to use weapons of mass destruction in future attacks. Indeed, evidence has been found of a testing programme using cyanide compounds as well as the development of crude procedures for producing mustard gas, sarin, and VX nerve agents. Already, several small-scale toxin attacks in Europe by groups linked to al Qaida have been thwarted, and there has been concern over the desire of terrorists to conduct a radiological dispersal attack in North America.

In support of the NATO Multinational CBRN Defence Battalion, the Alliance's armaments community is developing the capabilities to detect, protect against, and manage the hazards caused by the release of CBRN agents. Allies have drafted documents setting out common doctrine, procedures and equipment standards for protection against these weapons and for decontamination after an attack. Moreover, the Alliance has developed a water-based decontaminator that is now being tested in NATO nations. Research is also being carried out to develop technologies for the remote detection of the presence of these deadly substances. And further work is planned on military capabilities to defeat such weapons when encountered in the field.

Precision airdrop technology for special operations forces

Terrorists frequently seek sanctuary in remote locations where they believe it will be harder for NATO militaries and security services to operate. The actions undertaken against al Qaida in Afghanistan have demonstrated that Allied special operations forces already have a long reach. That said, precision insertion of men, equipment, supplies, and weapons in all weather conditions, at both extremely high and low altitudes, under a variety of circumstances, is a critical military capability that is difficult to achieve.

In a demanding environment such as Afghanistan, where transportation infrastructure is limited, the ability to insert special operations forces, and to keep them resupplied with pinpoint-accuracy airdrops, can prove crucial. As a result, the Allies are working together to develop a range of technologies and systems to ensure that no place, no matter how remote, can be a safe haven for terrorists. The first such trial is scheduled for spring 2005, with the active participation of several NATO and non-NATO nations.

Intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition of terrorists

Anonymity and the ability to launch attacks at a time and place of their choosing are tactical advantages utilised by terrorists. NATO is working on reducing or eliminating those advantages. A variety of new sensors and detection systems are being examined, and new software, computer models and analytical tools are being considered for use - all with the goal of giving Allied governments the capacity to identify the terrorist no matter how hard he or she tries to blend in to society, to track him or her, and to take the necessary actions to remove the threat.

In addition to a variety of technological measures that are being explored, the NATO Research & Technology Organisation and the NATO Science Committee are jointly exploring crucial areas in the behavioural sciences, such as "human factors analysis" and the psychological aspects of terrorism. A recently concluded symposium involving global experts on suicide bombers identified a number of key recommendations that NATO is now examining with a view to implementing them rapidly.

Countering mortar attacks

Terrorist organisations have proven able to attack both civilian and military targets using rockets and mortars. As a result, NATO launched a Countering Improvised Mortars Programme and added it to the Programme of Work for Defence Against Terrorism in October 2004. This effort is aimed at providing NATO with equipment, such as locating radar and laser technologies, necessary to detect mortar firing positions automatically and to be able to act with sufficient speed and accuracy to return fire effectively. The acquisition of such capabilities will enable NATO to provide effective protection to its own troops and other potential targets. The Netherlands will act as lead nation in this area.

This groundbreaking initiative and the entire Programme of Work for Defence against Terrorism is important for the protection of both NATO militaries and civilian populations and infrastructure. As we work to develop better ways of arming and equipping Allied forces to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks and to thwart planned terrorist attacks, NATO's armaments community is playing an increasingly important role in the fight against terrorism. The Programme's broad scope will also contribute to the stability and security of the international community and strengthen links with non-NATO bodies such as European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations.

Marshall Billingslea is Assistant Secretary General of NATO's Defence Investment Division and Chairman of both NATO's CNAD and the NC3 Board.