LONDON (Reuters) - Undercover police spot a suspected suicide bomber apparently about to attack a crowd: They alert a commander, explaining the evidence is inconclusive.
Does the commander neutralize the threat by shooting dead a possibly innocent man, or go for an arrest, thereby alerting the man, who then explodes a device? The clock ticks unforgivingly.
From New York and London to the mountains of Afghanistan, the gizmos used by special forces and police to try to solve terrifying dilemmas such as these are increasingly similar, a trend driven in part by security companies seeking new markets.
While the crossover of gadgetry between military and civilian authorities is not new, its greatly expanded scale and variety is. Some emerging technologies with such dual use, according to industry executives, include:
* “sense through wall” -- ever more powerful sensors allowing operators to “see” people in adjoining rooms/houses
* equipment that allows a commander to communicate digitally with a team of snipers to coordinate surveillance and attack
* small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for reconnaissance
* varieties of light, flexible body amour
* unmanned ground vehicles for bomb detection, surveillance
* ever more powerful night vision technology
* Systems to integrate multiple streams of surveillance data and present them securely to commanders and frontline staff.
The trend is partly driven by operational need: The surveillance gear used by law enforcement agencies fighting militant groups in rich countries increasingly mirrors that used by soldiers fighting insurgents in war zones.
A related driver is business, with manufacturers eyeing opportunities in homeland security to compensate for the trimming of Western defense budgets amid recession.
“For defense companies, security is a very attractive market,” said Tobias Feakin, Director of National Security and Resilience at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Homeland security budgets look to be rising.”
The crossover is not always 100 percent. In the event of legal action, some technologies adapted for civilian use must be able to record a knowledge trail about their own use to conform to the more demanding legal framework of police operations.
But some technology developed to meet the needs of special forces is “most certainly” being applied to civilian security, said Air-Vice Marshal Nigel Maddox, senior military adviser at UK Trade and Investment, a state body that promotes UK business.
“The requirements in an urban environment have a direct relevance to the way technology is being driven in Afghanistan and has been in Iraq,” he said on the sidelines of SOFEX, an exhibition and conference in Jordan on special forces.
The scenario above -- one faced by London police in 2005 -- is a dilemma police the world over wrestle with. It is also faced by soldiers tackling insurgents who use suicide bombers.
To date there is no remote sensing equipment in current use that is powerful or mobile enough to tell whether a man moving among crowds of people definitely has explosives on his person.
But the chances are that if a solution is developed it will come from scientists working with both army and police in mind.
In the London case, Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician, was shot seven times in the head by police on board an underground train at a London station on July 22, 2005.
The 27-year-old was targeted because some undercover officers believed he might have been one of four militants who had unsuccessfully tried to bomb London the day before.
An inquest into the Brazilian’s death in 2008 heard a series of miscommunications and confusion led the firearms officers, who were late arriving on the scene, to believe de Menezes was a suicide bomber. De Menezes’ family ended legal action against British police after agreeing a compensation deal.
Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorism Branch at the time, told Reuters that some applications adapted to civilian use had to conform to more rigorous legal requirements.
To transfer an army command and control product to police would require much stronger “auditability”, he said at SOFEX.
“It’s terribly important, if you think back to the Menezes incident for instance, to have complete tracking of the knowledge trail of who knew what, who made what decisions and when.”
Theodore Karasik, of the Instite for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said the crossover was expanding because “market forces demand” it. But homeland security was subject to many more “legal ramifications than the special ops community”.
Rees Ward, chief executive of ADS, a trade organization promoting British aerospace, defense and security industries, said the main crossover technologies were in command and control systems, communications and “platforms” like drones.
He said UAV technology “will be soon be ubiquitous” and many drones now in development were small, short range devices that could “solve the `what’s over the hill’ problem ... I can see that kind of technology feeding into many police operations.”
Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Philippa Fletcher
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