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Kamikaze UAVs, drones on leashes, information bombs top Pentagon’s counterterror wishlist

Northrop Grumman's first MQ-4C Triton drone. (Naval Air Systems Command)
December 22, 2017

Want a glimpse of the irregular grey-zone battles of the near future? One great indicator is the annual wishlist of the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, or CTTSO. Released on Wednesday, the office’s broad agency announcement, or BAA, emphasizes drones and ways to counter misinformation. Here are a few highlights:

Loitering Death Drones

In 2016, the Pentagon put out an urgent request for kamikaze drones that could loiter in the air for 15 minutes before striking their target. The CTTSO wants more of that, but better and smarter. They’re asking for a so-called “loitering munition” — basically a bomb or missile that can circle a specific area, waiting for a victim. As the BAA notes, current loitering munitions can’t hit things that are hiding behind walls and other obstacles, so CTTSO wants something that can outmaneuver an adversary’s best efforts to evade his fiery death. But they also want the drone bombs to be smart enough to identify and engage their targets: “A true VTOL loitering munition should possess enough endurance and adequate sensors to find, fix, and finish targets in a single man-portable platform,” the BAA reads.

To be clear: “Identify” doesn’t mean “autonomously designate and kill with no human intervention.” The CTTSO’s requirement says that fire control should be exercised by a human through a laptop or handheld device.

What does that look like? Imagine a cross between the bomb copters in the Slaughterbots short and the smart bullets in the classic 1984 robo-dystopia Runaway.

But that’s only the most dramatic drone on CTTSO’s list. The office is also seeking a “tethered sensor” — basically a drone on a leash — to fly up to 100 feet above a tactical vehicle to detect potential enemies on the horrizon free-flying drones require too much paperwork, or, in the case of some consumer drones like DJI Phantom, are banned for military use altogether.

A drone on a leash is less likely (in theory) to cause problems around it.

There’s also a request for a handy electronic guide to help soldiers Identify the wide variety consumer drones increasingly populating global skies.

Infowar Tools

Much of the BAA deals with the information environment, either as it appears to robots or to humans. There’s a request for an image database that can help an AI scan hours of video and pick out “people, vehicles, and other objects such as firearms, backpacks, footwear, and headwear with high accuracy.”

The CTTSO also wants a way to automate the sampling of public opinion, which it dubs a Strategic Atmospheric Tool. The BAA puts it this way: “deployment of an in-country software-enabled human network that interacts with and queries the local population.”

There’s a request for software that can detect bots spreading disinformation online: “Identifying and Countering Non-Autonomous Disinformation Efforts.” This is meant to help soldiers fight extremism and terrorism by interacting with local populations.

Of course, “non-autonomous” is the opposite of a bot, but to meet the office’s needs, the software has to be able to distinguish between a human and non-human information generator. “Among disinformation-pushing actors, [the software must] predict the probability that an actor/account is a witting vs. unwitting agent of an adversary,” the request reads. The office also wants the software to “Automatically detect emerging disinformation campaigns and narratives, prioritizing ones related to U.S. national security interests and foreign policy; and Measure [sic] and predict the resonance of narratives within various psychographics.” Put another way, they want software that can spot trends on social media (and elsewhere) to pick out anti-US influence campaigns, then figure out from where those campaigns are originating and how well they are performing.

Information warfare doesn’t just take place in those places where people are lashed to smartphones. Take the efforts by U.S. Special Forces Command to bust up the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, in Africa. The goal was to lure soldiers away from the control of brutal warlord Joseph Kony. Special Forces had enough intelligence to target specific LRA soldiers with highly tailored messages. The question was: how to get the message to the target in dense jungle, surrounded by other enemy troops?

“It was significantly dense jungle. The best means to access our target audience was through radio, leaflets, aerial loudspeaker operations,” Army Col. Bethany C. Aragon said, recounting the effort at an event in October event in Washington, D.C. Those sorts of efforts carry risks for limited rewards; you wind up giving your tailored communication away in a very imprecise way.

So the CTTSO is this year requesting an “Air Dropped Target Focusing Platform” — something like a leaflet bomb — to support Military Information Support Operations, or MISO. The goal is to help special operations forces “use more advanced technology or visual audible recognition for tailored messaging to specified target audiences.” The requirement is for “small electronic media devices that contain pertinent content that can be safely air dropped and gain the attention to various target audiences on the ground.”

And yes, you do drop them, like bombs, but gentle bombs. “Units must be delivered in a safe manner and allow an appropriate amount of descent time to enable the target audience to identify,” says the request.


© 2017 By National Journal Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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