The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), faced with a growing and diverse threat of chemical and biological attacks, is ramping up efforts to use technology to detect and, when possible, prevent attacks.

DTRA’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department recently held a demonstration called Perceptive Dragon that combined sensors with an algorithm-driven information architecture to inform decision making in response to attacks (including conventional kinetic attacks). The demonstration showed off the enhanced capabilities of its Integrated Early Warning (IEW) Advanced Technology Demonstration program.

During the demonstration, IEW software integrated light detection and ranging, fixed site sensors, and unmanned platforms. It also demonstrated advanced algorithms working between fixed sensors and autonomous unmanned platforms, according to DTRA. “Advancing these technologies may save warfighters’ lives and ensure their ability to conduct successful military operations in a chemical or biological environment,” the agency said.

DTRA, which also is working with the Department of Homeland Security on a cloud-based Biosurveillance Ecosystem to identify signs of pandemics, is pursuing a number of programs to put detection in the hands of units in the field. It has worked with the Marines on testing a portable biohazard detection system and is investigating using chemical weapons sensors on drones to limit the exposure to troops, but needs to get around the problem that most sensors are designed to be stationary or slow-moving – carried by hand – rather than flying at relatively high speeds. The DoD Chemical and Biological Defense Program’s 2017 Annual Report to Congress, obtained by the Federation of American Scientists via the Freedom of Information Act, mentions work with the Army Robotics Program Manager to integrate chemical and biological sensors into TALON IV ground robots.

The agency also is working with Leidos on an international program involving non-governmental organizations that underscores the breadth of efforts to counter chemical and biological threats. Under a contract valued at up to $170 million (a one-year base with four one-year options) Leidos will support DTRA’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP) and Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program through a worldwide Scientific and Technical Engagement Partnership (STEP) program, according to the company. As part of its work, Leidos said it will partner with industry, research institutions, and other organizations to reduce biological threats.

As the CBEP points out in its strategic plan, defense against biological and chemical threats has become a cross-agency and international effort. The program’s efforts intersect with other government programs, “including national security, force health protection, global health security, science, as well as development and engagement,” and engages with international organizations such as the World Health Organization and international police.

The use of chemical and biological agents as weapons of mass destruction dates to the use of chlorine gas by German forces in World War I and the release of biological agents by Japan during World War II. Although various treaties have aimed to curb their use, some countries continued to stockpile them.

Recent events have renewed fears of their use, mostly notably Syria’s use of sarin gas and reports that North Korea has accelerated its program to develop an arsenal of bioweapons. And, as pointed out in the CBEP plan, although chemical and biological capabilities have for decades remained the province of military forces, terrorist organizations now also potentially pose a threat, making the need for new technology to act as a counter even more critical.

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