30 January 2002



Call For Scientists, Technologists To Fight Terrorism

By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 03:15 pm ET
29 January 2002

Reshaping the 21st century battleground, including how best to use space-based hardware, is the focus of a Defense Department "Scientists helping America" meeting set for March.

The conference is being called for and co-sponsored by the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The invitation-only event is being limited to 200 specially selected individuals.

Intent of the Defense Department is to focus on technical areas where the U.S. military needs help, and to look at the warfare in the 21st century, with emphasis on a post-9/11 world of combating global terrorism.

Out-of-the-box thinking

The Department of Defense (DoD) and DARPA are looking for scientists to help America, particularly researchers who have never before worked with the department and who might have innovative ideas in nine key technical areas:

"The conference dialog is an opportunity to 'think out of the box,' influence the future and help America," said Anthony Tether, director of DARPA in detailing the conference earlier this month. Research scientists are to send in their prospective ideas by mid-February. A government panel is being established to review abstracts of ideas submitted. Some 200 scientists are to be selected for the first annual meeting, he said.

"We want to tap new resources to help us in our fight against terrorism. These scientists can bring a lot to the table. They can take us in directions that we might not have thought of in the past," said Jane Alexander, deputy director of DARPA.

The conference will be held March 11-13 at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Glimpse into future warfare

In reviewing the nine high-tech areas being discussed, a glimpse into where warfare is headed in the decades to come can be gleaned. Not all research areas are linked to use of space. However, if past is prologue, an increasing reliance on utilizing spacecraft to support a variety of tasks is likely.

As example, special operations have entered an era where unmanned systems -- air, sea, land and space -- are desired for missions requiring special reconnaissance and locking onto targets.

In this role, robotic systems, down to micro and nano-size, are to be used in the battlefield and can be controlled via satellite from remote locations. These devices are expected to continue the trend toward supplanting humans performing increasingly more complex reconnaissance and surveillance activities.

Special purpose satellites, outfitted with laser communications gear, can play a key role in communicating with submarines, and for guiding undersea weapons systems to enemy targets.

A new breed of stealth satellites, fashioned to be undetectable by radar, can eavesdrop on enemy communications. Watching and listening in on adversaries hiding in urban, jungle, desert, forest, or polar settings, or even in the air, has become increasingly critical.

Directed Energy weapons are also on tap. These systems would allow delivery of variable effects from lethal to non-lethal force for varying degrees of effects. For instance, high-powered microwave beams can render helpless computers and communication equipment. "Soft targets", meaning humans, can also be damaged via intense microwave or laser beams.

In the area of remote sensing, space-based networks of sensors or sensor arrays can assist Special Operations Forces to monitor enemy whereabouts in real-time or near real-time situations.

High-value targets, such as specified sites, personnel or activities of individuals or groups can be discerned from space. Also, sensors give commanders in the field better knowledge about the surrounding battle space, helping to determine the level and type of threats to be faced. Outputs from ground, air and space sensors must be "fused" together in such a way as to provide usable and timely intelligence.

Technical risk but potential payoff

Defense Department officials are on the lookout for nontraditional help from companies and scientists who have not had a role in DoD projects in the past, said Harry Schulte, acquisition lead for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

"Twenty-first century warfare requires our agency and others in DoD to think out of the box to come up with solutions," Schulte said. "We're looking for the best scientists in America to help develop technology relevant to the mission of USSOCOM."

USSOCOM's mission is to provide combat-ready special operations forces in peacetime and war. The command develops and acquires equipment and materiel unique to special operation forces, like the Navy SEALS and Army Green Berets.

DARPA is the central research and development organization for DoD. It's past includes helping shape both military and space projects in the early days of the "space race" between the United States and the former Soviet Union. DARPA manages basic and applied research and development projects where technical risk and potential payoff are both very high, and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.

DARPA is known for its role in sponsoring research that led to today's Internet.

Unrealistic expectations

The March gathering is cautiously eyed by Steven Aftergood, and heads the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

"The war on terrorism is the challenge of the moment, so it is perfectly reasonable for DARPA to solicit bright new technological ideas that could help defend the country," Aftergood told "Of course, terrorism is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional problem that does not lend itself to a purely technological solution. So no one should have unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished through technology," he said.

Improved directed energy weapons, which are one of the items on DARPA's agenda, Aftergood said, would hardly make a dent in the challenge posed by terrorism.

"It would be a shame if the DARPA initiative came at the expense of funding for basic science. Research and development programs that are narrowly targeted at a specific problem such as terrorism tend to be inefficient and wasteful. The pursuit of basic science, while unpredictable, seems to offer the best way to achieve conceptual breakthroughs," Aftergood said.