Aerospace & Defence

Tech solutions in the wake of 2019 shootings

24th February 2020
Alex Lynn

There were four shootings at US military bases in 2019. Since 1993, there have been more than 20 shooting incidents at armed forces installations. One especially deadly, left five dead at two separate facilities in Hawaii and Florida. Here, author Kayla Matthews explores how tech can offer a solution to the 2019 shootings, in order to try and prevent more in the future.

The recent swell in violence at military bases confirms that gun violence happens in places with easy access to firearms. Every service member deserves an environment where they can stay mission-focused without worrying about ‘domestic incidents’.

Technology may show a way forward. Here are some of the technologies US armed forces are working on in the wake of 2019’s uptick in military base shootings.

Autonomous patrol vehicles

According to Richard Kidd, a deputy assistant secretary for the Army: “The homeland is no longer a sanctuary.” 

Alex Beehler, representing the Army’s Installations, Energy and Environment division, concurred that the Army must become a ‘technology-enabled’ force by 2028: “Installations are really part of the battle front.”

According to Kidd and Beehler, the Army is actively exploring multiple technologies that could keep U.S. bases safer. One of these is autonomous vehicles for patrolling high-security areas and high-value targets with limited personnel.

The military, beginning with a pilot program at Fort Bragg, is also planning a fleet of driverless vehicles to transport service members to and from physicians’ appointments. Such a concept could apply to responding quickly after a shooting incident, including efficiently transporting the wounded.

Driverless cars and trucks have come a long way in a short time. However, the research into autonomous vehicle patrols for military bases reveals several challenges.

One problem involves covering every potential vulnerability while giving the vehicles a randomised path each time. If the paths are pre-programmed or too predictable, adversaries could slip inside after observing movement patterns.

Smart utilities and uninterruptible power

Ted Johnson is the manager for defence and national security research at Deloitte’s Centre for Government Insights. In an interview, he explained portions of the Air Force’s ongoing plans to modernise their bases and provide higher security for those stationed there.

One example could be seen at a 2016 ribbon-cutting ceremony at Forts Gordon, Stewart and Benning in Georgia. The project added a 250-acre, 30-megawatt solar power installation — the equivalent of powering 4,300 family homes — to the three bases. According to Johnson, adding solar power to military bases gives them an ‘independent power source during emergencies’.

This innovation is hugely important during active shooter situations and other incidents. Lapses in communication make it difficult or impossible to spread the word and mount an organised defence. Even losing lighting for a few minutes can take a nighttime situation from bad to worse.

According to Lieutenant General Gwen Bingham, the Army is also actively bringing 5G to ‘all of its installations’ for a speed boost while communicating.

Some of the advantages are subtler. The Army also wants to use utility monitoring technologies, like the Internet of Things, to monitor energy consumption on bases to more quickly pinpoint and respond to “anomalies.” Anomalies can signify anything from unauthorised listening devices to attempts to disable base security.

Improved anti-ram barrier technology

Guns aren’t the only deadly weapon used by people intent on causing carnage. The rate of vehicle-based attacks accelerated considerably in recent years. There were 120 vehicle ramming attacks across the globe between 1973 and 2018, 30 of which occurred between January 2017 and April 2018.

Multiple incidents at US military bases also confirm that vehicle-based suicide bombings remain a deadly reality for the armed forces. These deaths and injuries demonstrate why strong perimeters are essential. Anti-ram fences are a low-tech solution, but high-tech material science has dramatically improved their effectiveness while lowering costs.

Once troublesome and expensive to install, new designs now make it easy to secure 1,000 meters of perimeter at a time using a single beam and 30 anchoring posts. This solution provides security against vehicle attacks while requiring up to 75% less installation labour than traditional designs.

Portable and autonomous bulletproof barriers

DARPA is one organisation involved in researching next-generation solutions for protecting military bases. In 2014, DARPA began soliciting ideas that would, in their words, provide the means to ‘autonomously construct a barrier without human intervention’.

The organisation envisions stationary and portable devices that could ‘expand by orders of magnitude’ and provide barriers against entry or shields against gunfire. These devices could be positioned around military bases at key entrances or worn by individuals for deployment in worst-case scenarios.

Some of the most recent examples of gun violence at military bases featured troubled or compromised ‘insiders’ carrying out violence rather than outsiders breaching the perimeter. Access badges are a liability in these cases, and it’s not always possible to rescind access after a shooter’s intentions become clear. Instant bulletproof barriers may be a last line of defence, but they could be an effective one.

Advancements in military base technology

With these and other technologies, servicemen and women will be much more secure while on duty. Everything mentioned here is under development in one form or another, and each helps resolve a different vulnerability. Who watches the watchers? As it turns out, technology can fill that role handily.

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and writer whose work has also been featured on a number of publications. To read more from her, find Kayla's tech blog here

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