Six futuristic concepts on the Pentagon’s counterterrorism “wish list”

Quietly seeking new lethal tools for special operators.
Quietly seeking new lethal tools for special operators.
Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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A Department of Defense (DoD) branch that “identifies and develops capabilities to combat terrorism and irregular adversaries” is looking for big ideas.

According to a solicitation issued earlier this year, DoD’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO) wants scientists and researchers to deliver, among other things, adhesive skin patches that double as alarms; color night vision; armed underwater drones; long-range facial recognition; and a device that can locate and identify human targets through solid walls.

CTTSO’s request represents a “wish list” of sorts, says Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security who has written extensively about counterterrorism.

Now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington, DC think tank, Rosenzweig thinks some of what CTTSO hopes to achieve is likely doable, and reasonably quickly. Certain concepts, however, will probably remain just slightly out of reach, at least in the near-term, Rosenzweig tells Quartz.

Here are six concepts CTTSO would like to make real by FY 2020—which, for the federal government, begins Oct. 1, 2019:

Through-the-wall surveillance

“Tactical operators require a capability to discern humans behind an opaque structure without entering the structure with personnel or any physical instrumentation,” the CTTSO request explains. “Current technology requires teams to either physically enter a structure with personnel or utilize surveillance equipment that must have a line of sight into the structure to determine human locations and structure layout.”

The device will include “real-time or near real-time three-dimensional location of humans behind building walls;” the ability to discern between someone who is armed and someone who isn’t, as well being able to distinguish between a person and “other potential objects (e.g., furniture, fans);” and the capability to operate the system remotely and view images sent back on a tablet or smartphone.

Silent, wearable embassy alarm system

US embassies in certain overseas locations are “under constant threat of attack,” says the CTTSO document. And the security systems currently used in embassies give off loud, fire alarm-style alerts during an emergency.

“To notify personnel without an audible signature a body worn patch shall be developed to notify personnel of a threat silently as well as provide personnel the ability to alert the command center of a threat discretely [sic],” CTTSO’s solicitation says.

CTTSO seems to be imagining something that looks not unlike the patches people use to try to quit smoking. The alerts the patch provides, the solicitation instructs, should be tactile, “in the form of pressure, vibration, or other stimulation to provide silent notification to the user of an event,” and the patch needs to stay on for up to a week at a time. It also needs to be cheap enough “to be considered expendable with the objective to be reusable.”

Long-range facial identification system

Facial recognition has become a common (and sometimes controversial) method deployed by everyone from the military to law enforcement to Taylor Swift. However, the low resolution of facial imagery captured at long distances can pose a problem. CTTSO is looking for a system that works at distances of up to 300 meters “to provide…detection of potential criminals and terrorists in harsh and difficult urban and rural conditions.”

The winning submission will weigh less than 35 pounds, fit in a backpack, and compare “captured images from photos and video feeds taken from toll booths, closed circuit television cameras, and social media.”

Color night vision for EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) operations

Night vision goggles are typically known for the grainy, green images a wearer sees when using them in the field. A new, experimental tripod-mounted system that delivers color night vision imagery is still roughly the size of a small video camera, and thus not yet ready for battlefield use.

CTTSO is hoping to develop a helmet-mountable night vision system that is “capable of producing full color images of items, reflective of their actual coloring.” In addition to the wearable device, CTTSO is requesting a robot-mountable configuration, as well. “The system should not suffer any damage if batteries are installed improperly,” the solicitation says.

Handheld anomaly detection wand

Metal detector wands work, but only on metal, the CTTSO solicitation notes. For that reason, a “handheld anomaly detection wand is needed to detect both non-metallic and metallic objects concealed under clothing or in pockets.”

It should weigh less than 1.5 pounds, work without coming into physical contact with the person being screened, and must at least “detect anomalies through clothing such as shirts, pants, and light outerwear,” but ideally work on someone wearing a heavy jacket.

Firing system for underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)

The US Navy uses underwater drones to perform a variety of missions, including mine countermeasures, surveillance, and data collection. The Russian navy has reportedly developed underwater attack drones designed to hunt enemy submarines.

CTTSO is looking for underwater firing systems that can be used on any drone platform, at ocean depths up to 99 feet, with the ability to shoot “a minimum of two commercial or military electric blasting caps,” as well as “underwater electrical breeches” including the Percussion Actuated Non-electric (PAN) Disruptor, which uses a high-velocity water jet to detonate bombs and other explosive devices.

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