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Smaller Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency tackles new challenges

By C. Todd Lopez

FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Nov. 27, 2015) -- Simulating a scenario from Afghanistan, a civilian dressed in a white robe stood outside in front of a green background underneath a small, open shelter.

About 200 feet away, in a tent filled with monitors and computers, an analyst looked at output from an array of sensors that were pointed at the man, and determined he was wearing some sort of explosive device.

A remotely-controlled robot displays its manual dexterity during a display of equipment by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency on Fort Belvoir, Va., Nov. 17, 2015.

"He looks fit to shoot," said one of the engineers who work on the "Standoff Suicide Bomb Detection System," or SSBDS. It's one of the many projects funded by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency under development that were on display on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Nov. 17.

"The SSBDS is the Department of Defense's only system-of-systems approach to detecting personnel-borne IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," said the engineer from the Communications Electronics Research Development and Engineering Command night vision labs, who asked not to reveal his name. "We use a multitude of different sensing modalities, because there isn't a single silver bullet, single sensor that works all the time in all places."

Spaced out between the man in the robe and the tent with all the gear was an array of sensors including visible imagers, mid-wave and longwave infrared imagers, and a terahertz imager. All are commercial off-the-shelf sensors.

"They cover one another's blind spots and vulnerabilities," the engineer said. "As conditions change through the day, one might work better than the other. So it keeps you covered."

The engineer said that at one point, a team took the system to Afghanistan to evaluate it in a real-world environment at an entry control point on a forward operating base.

Using the SSBDS, the team aided security teams there in screening personnel who were being brought onto the installation. They ended up being asked to stay for 18 months with their equipment, he said. Five rotations of teams came through, and they trained them all as operators of the system.

While the team was in Afghanistan, they didn't catch anybody trying to come onto the base with an explosive device, but within weeks of their departure, the forward operating base was attacked. The engineer speculated that their SSBDS might have acted as a kind of intimidation factor that kept would-be terrorists from trying to come on to the installation.

"They knew we had something," he said. "It's like putting the ADT sign in front of your house. Go find a softer target."

Future work on the SSBDS, he said, is expected to include additional sensors to make the system more diverse and tailorable for different environments. Additionally, they hope to make the system more portable and compact and easy to set up.

SMALLER AGENCY

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, was established in 2006 to counter the growing threat of IEDs being experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year, JIEDDO was realigned under the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. The new agency is now called Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, or JIDA.

Lt. Gen. Michael H. Shields, JIDA's director since July 30, said the organization has become smaller over the last two years, and now has fewer employees and a smaller budget. The agency is down now to only 400 employees with contractors to support the mission, and a budget of about $500 million.

JIDA provides not only material solutions to defeat IEDs including gear, but also substantial intelligence and analytical capability to learn about and to defeat IED networks.

JIDA, Shields said, maintains three distinct efforts that he characterized as "attack the network," "defeat the device," and "train the force."

Now smaller, he said, it's now "more important for us to leverage other organizations and agencies with similar tech outreach capacity," leaning heavily on academia and industry partners as well.

At JIEDDO, the agency's name made it clear that the focus was on the IED, called the "signature weapon" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new organization has a new name, suggesting a focus on "improvised threats," rather than just IEDs.

Shields emphasized that JIDA still maintains a "laser focus" on IEDs, but said the agency now has a broader focus. That broader focus is a response, in part, to ISIL, which is working now with new agents such as industrial chemicals like chlorine, he said.

JIDA is also looking at using new ways to innovate and improve existing technology, by asking scientists to reduce weight or size or power usage for existing systems, and by using existing sensors in new ways.

NEW THREATS

Since assuming the role as director of the newly-created JIDA, Shields has visited both Iraq and Afghanistan, meeting with commanders there, with special operations forces, with the rapid equipping force, with partner nations and with Iraqi and Afghan militaries to discuss the threats that are being seen now in those areas, posed by enemies such as ISIL.

"This is not the fight we faced when I was a brigade commander in 2005-2006 in Iraq," Shields said. "This is very organized. They [ISIL] have an industrial capacity to produce IEDs. It's not a terrorist organization that is using them to achieve a terrorist effect. They are using them in vast quantities to help isolate and shape the battle space, in almost phased types of operations. They are covering them with observation and fires. It's caused the Iraqis and folks to re-think how we deal with these threats."

Pointing out the sophistication of the enemy, Shields cited ISIL's "incredible capacity" to produce and deploy IEDs, sometimes as many as 30 at once, an "innovative use of crush switches in buildings," house-borne IEDs, as well as anti-lift and anti-tamper IEDs. All, he said, are achieving a "comprehensive effect against Iraqi security forces."

The general also pointed to ISIL's use of vehicle-borne IEDs "as their precision-guided munitions," though recently Iraqi Security Forces have proven successful in their effort to stymie ISIL's use of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs.

When the United States had a large and active presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, JIEDDO had more accurate and up-to-date information about the types of IEDs being used there and the frequency and location of their use. Now that the large U.S. presence is gone, he said, that flow of information has diminished. He said the agency is looking for ways to restart that flow of accurate and timely information so they can work better to defeat those threats.

"If we could get improved reporting from Iraqi security forces ... " he said. "Reporting has to improve and then knowing what to report and being able to articulate why exploitation is so critical.

He said it's important to articulate to ISF why capturing information and reporting information about IED encounters is crucial. Also important, he said, is establishing "a baseline bit of information" that should be captured and then having that information fed back to where JIDA can use it.

VIRTUAL ASSISTANCE

One solution to help Iraqi forces forward timely, accurate information regarding IEDs to JIDA is called "Virtual Advice and Assist," or VAA, Shields said.

"We provide them a capability where they can catalog and capture and so forth," he said. "In a sense, meta-data tag the information and then bring it back."

In a situation where U.S. Soldiers are not allowed to leave their installation in Iraq, but where they might want to be able to help Iraqi Security Forces disarm and exploit an IED they have found, as part of VAA, a tablet computing device could be issued to those Iraqi security forces. Those Iraqi security forces could then take that device out to the location of the IED they have found, and consult with American counterparts in real time over the network to disarm it, and to document key information about what they have found.

The VAA has been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa as a proof of concept and feedback from the warfighter is that the capability looks promising.

David Gregory, JIDAs chief engineer for deployed information technology, explained how JIDA is using another technology called the JIDA Expeditionary Team kit, or JET, to put the agency's capability out into the field. The JET kit, in version 1 right now, has been around since 2013. It fits inside just three backpacks and allows JIDA analysts to go out into the field and bring the agency's IED intelligence and analytical support to a unit, but with minimal impact on that unit.

The kit includes a router, some computers, a VOIP phone, and a small satellite dish to gain Internet connectivity through Department of Defense satellites.

"When they go forward to a unit ... we outfit them if the need is there, with a tailored system for their specific needs - for JIDA's needs," Gregory said. "They don't fall in on a unit and with their hands out asking for support. We send that with them."

The kit allows a small team, two personnel, to connect to JIDA's "attack the network tool suite," Gregory said, that includes a suite of software applications, custom built, using databases and data sources from around the world. The JET kit provides classified and unclassified capability and also allows users to dial into a video teleconference as well. These tools allow the JET to fuse intelligence about IED networks from national resources with forward tactical operations.

Gregory also said JIDA is working on a newer "JET Plus" kit that will support a team of seven to ten individuals, instead of the two that are supported by JET. The kit comes with a larger satellite dish to support more data throughput and more people.

Gregory said that also on the horizon is to include hand-held units with the JET kits, such as smart phones, for instance, that can be brought right out to where American forces meet with Iraqi or Afghan forces.

"This is intended for an American Special Forces Soldier, who is shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi police," he said. "He'll be receiving updates. He can show that guy, in whatever language it needs to be in."

He said the effort is about moving critical information out of the classified networks, where it is hidden and unavailable to most, "directly into the hands of people who need it."