Saturday, 15 August 2009

The appliance of science

In the Daily Mail today we saw a report announcing that inventors had been urged to come up with gadgets to tackle possible future terrorist threats such as robot suicide bombers.

This, apparently, is part of the government's three-year counter terrorism strategy, in which it wants civilian scientists to follow in the footsteps of Q - the fictional inventor who supplies contraptions to James Bond.

One cannot help but think, however, that this search for novelty rather misses the point – certainly where the military is concerned. The picture above shows a damaged Wimik, one in a patrol from A Company the Royal Irish Regiment. On 6th April 2008, it was hit by an IED whilst travelling through Sangin and, as can be seen, the blast ripped through the front of the vehicle, leaving the Company Commander, Major Simon Shirley, severely injured.

This perhaps suggests that is not the application of new and as yet undeveloped inventions that the government needs to be looking for, but simply the application of existing technology and its more widespread use.

The contrast between the exisitng technologies is clearly seen in the picture above where, in a composite convoy comprising UK and US forces, we see a US Maxxpro MRAP leading a British Wimik (the same type of vehicle in which Major Shirley was injured), the latter complete with the same strapped-on Kevlar armour, added in a vain attempt to improve the protection.

What is striking about Major Shirley's vehicle is the relatively modest level of damage caused to the vehicle, indicating that a better protected vehicle might easily have shrugged off the explosion, leaving its occupants uninjured, as was the case in the vehicle depicted (below), which seems to have taken a similar explosion.

Much the same could perhaps be said of the Americans. While they are well ahead of the game in equipping troops with protected vehicles, and have exploited other technologies, they appear to be nowhere as well advanced in applying these to protect the increasingly vulnerable road network.

What we see below is the result of a major explosion at a site in Wardak Province, where inspection suggests that the insurgents had emplaced a fairly substantial culvert bomb. The road is evidently new, well-engineered an in good condition.

Also evident, though, is a complete lack of cover for potential (and in this case, actual) bomb emplacers. Arguably, therefore, CCTV and/or other sensors, using fixed surveillance masts could have provided some degree of protection, detecting bomb placing activity and enabling action to be taken which might have avoided a potential catastrophe.

Nevertheless, the photograph, which appeared on The Washington Times website – has a caption, with frustratingly little detail, but it does tell us that US troops "are working to combat the use of roadside bombs by the Taliban and al Qaeda."

With the MoD now reporting that IEDs have increased by 114 percent in Afghanistan, compared with this time last year, British forces too need to be working to combat them. But existing technology – the appliance of science - rather than following "in the footsteps of Q" already provides many of the answers.