WASHINGTON — The US military's explosive ordnance disposal community, bedeviled by roadside bombs in recent wars, is girding for a new threat: flying drones as IEDs.
The crash landing of a hobbyist's quadcopter on the grounds of the White House in January has sparked fears that a low-tech enemy like the Islamic State could harness such a device to deliver a bomb — and that explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) techs would have to confront it.
"I personally believe that the unmanned platform is going to be one of the most important weapons of our age," Navy Capt. Vincent Martinez, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) EOD Technology Division, said. "I'm going to have to start thinking not only about how I defuse the payload but how I defuse the platform. When I walk up on that platform, is it watching me, is it sensing me, is it waiting for me?"
Though the quadcopter's crash landing was an accident, and no one was hurt, Martinez noted the drone's 6six-pound payload could have been full of explosives.
"Imagine the media event if it lands on top of the White House and detonates, whether it kills anybody or not," Martinez said. "The signal is sent. Add C4 [plastic explosive] to that, and it's a pretty big bang."
Members of the military's EOD community said they are concerned enemies will harness technology quicker and in new ways, and that they must be vigilant and streamline acquisitions in order to keep pace. The National Defense Industrial Association on Tuesday and Wednesday held its annual EOD conference in Bethesda, Maryland, where officials discussed the issue.
The Islamic State group has used drones in the past. US Central Command announced in March that it had bombed an IS remotely piloted aircraft, of ISIL's, which a Defense Department spokesman later described as a "model plane," spotted as it was loaded into the trunk of a car.
Jerry Leverich, a senior analyst with Army Training and Doctrine Command's futures directorate, called fixed-wing scale models very difficult to track, and the quadcopter "a $100 device, currently being used for surveillance, that can be quickly adapted for lightweight explosives."
Leverich declined to detail specific methods used by the Islamic State, but the group is reportedly behind countless car bombs and vehicle-borne suicide IEDs. The New York Times reported in May that mass quantities of fertilizer — a bomb ingredient — have been flowing into Islamic State territory.
In recent wars the US has often had a technological edge, but the streak may not last, Leverich said.
"One of the strengths of the United States is when we have one adversary, we can quickly reorient and bring our treasure and ability to focus on that adversary," Leverich said. "But right now we're in a period of tremendous uncertainty, and trying to determine what the singular threat is going to be is a significant challenge."
For the largely defense industry audience, Martinez outlined avenues for potential innovation: undersea explosives detectors that allow real-time analysis, social media aggregators that predict local IED trends, or a voice-operated archive of bombs and parts a tech could use, like Siri, while defusing a bomb. A past success was a capability that detected nearby video camera emissions — bombers film their work — to predict attacks.
"How about suit innovations," Martinez said. "I'd like to be fully covered, if possible, I'd like to be stronger, I'd like to be faster. I'd like to be the bionic man, but I don't want to spend $6 million on the suit."
While potential adversaries work with "breakneck speed," Martinez said, the community and industry need to collaborate to goose the lumbering military's acquisition system. It was a sentiment echoed by others dissatisfied with the pace of military procurement.
Air Force Maj. Shane Frith, also with the NSWC, said the military has yet to field a portable X-ray for EOD techs, even though requirements were created in 2007. The military would have done better to field an imperfect version than encumber the program with needless specifications, he said.
"The requirements have been surpassed by technology and innovation coming out of the war zone, out of industry, so we're going to end up purchasing an item that is expired, irrelevant," Frith said. "Technology has advanced past the acquisition."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.