Quicker, more targeted solutions are needed as national security threats proliferate from all sides
The first sign of trouble was the smoke rising from the unattended SUV, parked by the curb with its engine running and hazard lights on.
Alerted by two T-shirt vendors, authorities soon swept on the scene and defused the bomb inside—a crude, homemade concoction of propane, gasoline and fireworks that, the city’s police commissioner later said, could have killed or injured untold numbers of people.
In the seven years since the Times Square car bombing attempt, authorities haven’t always been able to count on visible warning signs to prevent potential casualties. New threats continue to emerge at a rapid rate, often silent and unseen.
Rogue nations aren’t the only perpetrators within today’s kaleidoscope of terrorist threats. Ideologues and lone-wolf actors often self-radicalize through social media and identify with extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Boosting response time & detection
As more recent cases of homegrown terrorism demonstrate, authorities can’t always count on luck—or attentive bystanders—to avert disaster.
Recent events make that point painfully clear. In less than three minutes, the San Bernardino killers sprayed more than 100 bullets, killing 14 and injuring 22 others. In 20 minutes, the Paris Bataclan attackers claimed 89 lives and injured dozens more. Before explosions ripped through Istanbul’s main airport last June, two assailants opened fire at a security checkpoint, ultimately claiming 45 lives.
Whether in an office, theater or airport, quick detection systems are essential. Battelle has developed SiteGuard-ASR, a sensor technology that automatically alerts authorities within one second of a shot fired. The research-and-development nonprofit, whose national defense expertise stretches back decades to its involvement in the Manhattan Project, has also developed a liquid scanner to quickly detect explosives—a critical fixture of airport security.
Quick detection for security around commercial aviation is essential. U.S. airports alone see more than 640 million travelers pass through each year. The Department of Homeland Security's liquid ban is one of many ever-increasing security measures. The ban was implemented in 2006 after terrorists en route from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada attempted to detonate liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks.
“Despite many years of stepped-up efforts to thwart terrorist ambitions, attacks on airports and commercial jets demonstrate that explosives remain a significant aviation threat,” said Don LaMonaca, director for aviation security at Battelle. One doesn’t need to look far for examples—the recent Brussels and Istanbul airport bombings, as well as the 2015 crash of a Russian passenger jet, and a year later, the EgyptAir A320 crash, both of which investigators suspect were caused by a bomb.
To address growing security needs, Battelle’s liquid scanner uses a combination of radio frequency and ultrasonic technology to accurately detect a container’s contents in under five seconds. In recent years, the LS10™ machine has been deployed at airports around the world.
Ease of Design
Today’s threats are more diverse than 10 or 15 years ago. What’s more, terrorists can readily obtain the technologies to do maximum damage.
“It is easier for terrorists to obtain and fabricate the ingredients for certain mass-casualty weapons, given the availability of chemical and biological materials and access to technical know-how,” said Matthew J. Shaw, vice president and general manager of Battelle’s chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) defense business unit.
In many cases, weapons don’t require highly technical equipment to manufacture. Last year, Kenneth Myers, then-director of the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, told a congressional panel, “We are not talking about huge factories or facilities…sometimes it is a small laboratory that could fit inside a bathroom.”
These days, an adversary attempting to enrich uranium or weaponize anthrax is easier to identify—and localize—than one who can cheaply purchase ransomware kits and remotely operable drones.
Maritime safety often falls off the radar of public attention, but America’s waters are a conduit for drugs, illegal immigration and potential acts of terror. And the U.S. tracks underwater espionage around the world from nations such as Russia. Battelle has developed solutions that extend mission duration of unmanned systems, such as a battery-powered dual-mode undersea vehicle that can stretch a maritime mission to 700 miles.
Just a generation ago, drones were the preserve of the military, while today commercial drones surpass sales of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They are affordable and widely available for nefarious use—as explosives and to carry hazardous materials.
Last October, ISIS repurposed a commercial drone with a bomb that exploded after being shot down—and became the first recorded instance of a weaponized commercial drone used to claim lives. It’s only a matter of time, experts say, before drones are used to disperse chemical, biological or nuclear material over populated areas.
The possibility of collateral damage that could be triggered by a downed drone has led Battelle to develop a drone-countering capability. DroneDefender®’s non-kinetic solution disrupts remote control and GPS guidance to bring down UAVs. So far, the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have ordered nearly 200 systems.
The availability of inexpensive commercial drones is raising concerns that they could be used for harm both on and off the battlefield. Take a look.
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Fighting chem-bio threats
The proliferating nature of today’s threats is drawing concern beyond defense circles. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates warned the looming threat of bioterrorism is “right up there with nuclear war and climate change.” That warning came just days after the half-brother of North Korea’s leader was assassinated with VX, the most potent of all nerve agents, developed for chemical warfare.
Just as bioterrorism concerns grow, particularly after Syria’s most recent—and worst—chemical weapon attack since 2013, budgets remain tight. Despite the current administration’s proposed increases to defense spending, the Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is still reeling from cutbacks that accompanied the last few years. The wave of evolving threats requires the development of countermeasures, such as personal protective equipment, that can be tested against live agents.
Early live-agent testing is important because it saves money—making efficient use of development funds—while also ensuring that countermeasures actually work when they are needed in real life by the military and first responders.
“When it comes to the development of systems to counter these threats, the ultimate standard for validating performance is live-agent testing against an actual chemical or biological threat,” versus a simulant that is only able to represent a portion of the chemical and physical properties of agents, Shaw said.
Battelle conducts these highly specialized tests at its chemical surety and biological safety level-three (BLS3) laboratories—the largest such private facilities in the United States that handle chemical agent and high-risk pathogens.
Cost efficiencies and easy detection also take center stage beyond the laboratory. While typical chemical and biological surveillance to detect airborne biothreats can range anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per day, Battelle’s resource effective bio-identification system, or REBS, is both compact and quick, with the ability to detect hundreds of pathogens—from viruses and bacteria to mixed threats—in 30 minutes or less, at operating costs of roughly $1 a day.
Rapid technology advances and ease of access to materials aid adversaries in developing chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive weapons (CBRNE), which the Pentagon has called “complex, diverse and…enduring risks to our Joint Force and the Homeland.” Battelle helps our government protect Americans with unique expertise, facilities and know-how in the fight against the world’s most highly pathogenic and toxic materials.
Bombs aren’t the only emerging threat that could bring daily life and critical infrastructure to a halt. War and spycraft are also being waged on the cyber level. The prospect of counterfeit or spying microchips finding their way into military equipment and other critical systems is ever-increasing, with dangers multiplied by the interconnectivity of the Internet of Things.
In 2012, a Senate Armed Services Committee investigation found nearly 2,000 cases of counterfeit electronic chips in defense supplies. Four years later, a Government Accountability Office report found the situation largely unchanged. Those vulnerabilities extend to nearly all areas of life, where wireless systems—from medical devices to electric grids—rely on microchips for operation.
“I am actually amazed that no terror group has gone after infrastructure— communications, supply chains—and we cannot count on that strategic blindness continuing,” said Miguel Centeno, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University.
Luck may be running out.
In December 2015, Ukraine saw the world’s first cyber-induced power outage on an electrical grid, which left 220,000 residents in the dark. While the Ukraine attack was ultimately traced back to malware, introduced through spear-fishing emails, the scope of the incident signaled the need to reassess all avenues of potential infiltration. Soon after, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised concern about the vulnerability of America’s own industrial control systems.
One step in plugging potential vulnerabilities is the removal of counterfeit microchips from critical supply chains. Yet counterfeit detection methods can be time-consuming and costly. To address that reality, Battelle has developed a low-cost authentication system that identifies counterfeit microchips before a product is put into operation. The multipoint test verifies chips in seconds per part.
“Research and innovation are invaluable because they’re part of the infrastructure that terrorists in particular lack,” said Tom Nichols, a national-security expert at the U.S. Naval War College. “But again, people need to be aware that the obvious answer to a high-tech solution is to use a low-tech attack…there are still guys trying to figure out where to park a car bomb.”
As long as they do, the need for solutions—on-the-spot, fast and reliable—will remain.