The Ripon Forum

Volume 40, No. 4

Aug - Sept 2006 Issue

A Key to Our Security

By on October 19, 2015 with 0 Comments

America’s ability to field and deploy new technology is critical to the Long War


When the President and Congress designed the Department of Homeland Security, one of the many rationales for the new Department was to provide a focal point for the development of innovative technologies aimed at securing the homeland. 

Even the most casual observer would recognize the spectacular impact technology has had as an enabler and force multiplier for the U.S. military. Just as science and technology has been crucial to our ability to defeat past and present enemies overseas, so too would it be put to work to defeat those who would attack our homeland and disrupt our way of life.  

Until this administration, there had been little focus historically on homeland security technology development. Precedence has been given in the past to efforts associated with developing capability for our military and intelligence community, with the implicit idea that we would deter and, if needed, defeat threats to our nation overseas. While overseas engagement is still, appropriately, the dominant element to our security posture, the attacks of September 11th, the anthrax attacks that occurred soon afterwards, and the ensuing examination of our vulnerabilities and the motivations of our enemies made it clear that we needed to bolster our defenses here at home. 

The nation possesses a vast technology enterprise — companies, universities, institutes, and government labs of all sizes conduct research and development over a very broad range. Thus, a key mission for the Department of Homeland Security is to harness this resource, and the knowledge it represents, to the mission of homeland security.  

Sensors used to track biological, chemical and radiological agents sit on the side of a U.S. Post office building in New York City in June 2003.

Sensors used to track biological, chemical and radiological agents sit on the side of a U.S. Post office building in New York City in June 2003.

Despite its newness, this effort has already borne fruit for the American people. The nation is truly safer today than it was before 9/11, due in large part to technological innovations that help us detect, intercept and respond to potential acts of terrorism more swiftly than ever before imagined.  

The Department deployed sensors to over 30 cities to detect aerosol releases of dangerous biological pathogens — in a timely enough manner to treat the exposed populations and minimize the impact. Chemical and biological sensors have been deployed to transit systems and facilities where crowds of people are gathered, in some cases for special events, in other cases permanently.  The Department continues to deploy radiation sensors to our borders to detect the illicit transport of radioactive materials, and is experimenting with capabilities to similarly protect our cities. The Department continues to develop and release standards for radiation detection equipment; for biological pathogen detectors; for interoperable communications; and other types of equipment that might be purchased by federal agencies, the private sector, and state and local agencies. And, of course, systems that detect the presence of explosives have been deployed to our airports. However, virtually all of these deployments were the result of technology investments that were begun prior to 9/11, and thus could be brought quickly to completion by the new Department. Most of these technologies, while providing needed protection, did not meet the full set of domestic security requirements. Thus, as the Department was completing and deploying these capabilities, it also began, with the enthusiastic support of Congress, a series of research and development programs specifically aimed at meeting the needs of homeland security. The philosophy was – and remains – to improve the technology in spirals, deploying what is available in the near term while at the same time maintaining a research and development effort aimed at providing the next generation of capability. 

For example, as noted earlier, the Biowatch program has deployed to over 30 cities a system for detecting aerosolized biological attacks (such as anthrax). The system, as might be imagined, has stringent performance requirements in terms of both sensitivity — the amount of pathogen that needs to be present before the system alarms — and in terms of its ability to not alarm when it shouldn’t. The technology that was available in 2003 that met those (and other) needs requires, every day in each city, lots of analysis by technicians working to capacity in laboratories with specialized equipment. This creates a bottleneck that limits the number of detectors that can be deployed to each city, and ultimately limits the ability of the system to protect the public from some attack scenarios of concern. Thus, in 2004 DHS initiated the development of a new class of innovative Biowatch detectors that remove the need for all of that touch labor. This project has stressed the state of the art, and pilot deployments are expected to begin in 2007, with thousands of detectors then deployed across the Nation soon afterward. 

The nation is truly safer today than it was before 9/11, due in large part to technological innovations that help us detect, intercept and respond to potential acts of terrorism more swiftly than ever before imagined.

In the realm of nuclear detection, a program was initiated at our Nation’s borders to prevent the illicit transport of radioactive materials. This includes material (such as easily available medical radiation sources) that might be spread over an area in a so-called “dirty bomb” to disrupt, for example, the operations at a port. Of greatest concern, however, would be any attempt to bring in to the United States fissile material — the stuff of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons and the material used within them are not highly radioactive, making them difficult to detect. A further complication is that there are many naturally occurring or legitimate sources of radiation that cross our borders every day – examples include kitty litter, bananas, and turbine blades – whose overall radioactivity is similar to that of the nuclear threat. 

The sensors that were available for deployment in 2003 could certainly detect many of the threats of interest, and hence their deployment has significantly improved the security of the Nation. However, they are unable to discriminate between a nuclear weapon and legitimate shipments, which means that every truck or vehicle crossing the border with the right amount of radioactive material will cause an alarm, and require that vehicle to be pulled over and inspected in detail. At some ports of entry into the U.S., the frequency with which this occurs causes a bottleneck that ultimately limits the ability of the currently deployed generation of sensors to address the full spectrum of threats. 

Recognizing this, in 2003 DHS initiated a program to develop the next generation of radiation sensors that have the ability to automatically sort out legitimate shipments from threats, thus greatly reducing the inspection bottleneck, and providing a system that will address a much greater range of nuclear smuggling scenarios.  Deployments to the border will begin in 2007. This new capability will also make practical the deployment of nuclear detection technology to venues other than border ports of entry, such as toll booths and truck weighing stations. With the creation of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office within DHS, the engineering of this and future generation systems is unified with the budgets needed for large scale deployment, and is coordinated with overseas programs managed by the Departments of State, Energy, and Defense. 

These are but two examples that demonstrate the commitment that the administration has made to innovation and its application to homeland security. Many others could be cited. If effective technology exists to protect the American public, then it has been deployed. Behind the scenes, however, an effort has been underway, with hundreds of millions invested each year, to focus “state of the art” science and engineering on detecting very high consequence threats to the Nation. This represents an asymmetric advantage we as a nation hold in the war on terrorism, and hence requires a sustained commitment of resources and talent. 

Perhaps the greatest innovation in homeland security is the importance that has been placed by the administration and Congress on innovation! As the Nation fights terrorism, it is developing the tools that can help us win. It is a unique and historic undertaking.  RF

Dr. Penrose Albright served as Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology at the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to that, he was Assistant Director for Homeland and National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is currently Managing Director at the Civitas Group llc.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *