New sensors hunt for fertilizer bombs in Afghanistan

Airborne pod sniffs out chemical signatures in rugged terrain

A new military program under way in Afghanistan seeks to track fertilizer-based improvised explosive devices by sniffing them out from the air, reports Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Danger Room blog.

While there were about 300 Afghan IED events recorded in December 2008, the monthly number has more than tripled to 1,128 such events in May 2010, according to the Defense Department. With such a sharp rise in the number of recorded IED incidents, military officials are testing new ways to thwart such attacks.


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Rather than building bombs fashioned from old ordnance shells as was the method in Iraq, Afghan insurgents are constructing bombs that use fertilizer as the explosive charge, DOD’s Joint IED Defeat Organization confirms. The Afghanistan bombs use two types of fertilizers: potassium chloride and ammonium nitrate, JIEDDO officials said earlier this year.

Although Afghanistan officials banned the substances earlier this year, they are still being made. Because the traditional metal detection efforts that the military used to locate IEDs in Iraq is not effective against nonmetallic bombs, the U.S. military needs a new way to hunt for fertilizer-based bombs.

The answer comes in the form of a new program known as Project Ursus. The experimental program is operated by Task Force ODIN, a bomber-targeting team established to fight IED networks in Iraq.

Ursus aims to find what ODIN’s leaders term “generic homemade explosive observables.” This is done by aerial surveillance using a pod mounted on a King Air twin-engine turboprop plane, such as the MC-12, that searches for the chemical signatures of fertilizer in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.

ODIN officials declined to provide more detailed information about the technologies involved. The program has only been in place for about six months, and therefore it’s premature to make any solid assessment of its success, they said.

“Initial indications are that it’s proving its value on the battlefield,” Lt. Col. Kevin Diermeier, ODIN’s commander, told Danger Room.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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