Canadian Defence Review
April 10, 2014
Allen Vanguard: countering the IED threat
Effectively neutralizing improvised explosive devices, the leading cause of death of Canadian soldiers during the Afghanistan deployment, not only saves lives, it could help win future wars
With Western deployments in Afghanistan increasingly regarded by the public as yesterday’s news, so too is the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However overlooking this asymmetrical warfare tool would be a big mistake says one international expert. “If we think that the IED threat is going away we’re dreaming,” says Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). “It’s going to confront us operationally and domestically for decades. We need to come to grips with that.”
Mike Dithurbide vice-president and general manager, of Allen Vanguard agrees. “The end of the Cold War substantially lessened the probability of large state-to-state confrontations,” said Dithurbide. “Asymmetrical conflicts, which often take place in failed states, are the new norm.” Dithurbide, an ex-Royal Canadian Army officer, who joined Allen Vanguard in 2004, saw the damage that IEDs, the leading cause of death of Canadian soldiers during the Afghanistan deployment, can cause first hand.
During his 28-year military career Dithurbide regularly dealt with asymmetrical challenges, experience that he brought to Allen Vanguard, which, through its provision of equipment, training and threat intelligence, played a leading role in countering the radio controlled improvised explosive devices (RCIEDs) that resistance forces used so effectively against Western solders during the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.
A leading Canadian player
Allen Vanguard’s achievements are impressive. The company’s Equinox, Scorpion, 3XXX and many of its other legacy platforms are used for a variety of applications. These range from force, VIP and static/fixed site protection, to EOD, SWAT and Special Forces operations. More than 15,000 such counter-IED systems have been sold, generating significant export success for Allen Vanguard (more than 80% of its sales are to foreign markets) and cementing its status as a leading US-owned, but fully Canadian provider.
“We were involved in the Afghanistan operations from the get-go,” says Dithurbide. “We developed significant capabilities from those experiences. Today our equipment is deployed throughout the Canadian Forces, which we continue to support through research and training. Just as important though, we own the intellectual property stemming from our work. This gives us a strong leg up on US-based competitors who must confront stringent International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARS) restrictions when competing in export markets.”
That said, according to Dithurbide, Allen Vanguard’s impressive achievements nevertheless still understate both the company’s total contribution to the country’s defence sector and its future impact. “We have about 40 employees in Canada,” says Dithurbide. “But because we sub-contract much of our commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) production, our overall footprint encompasses at least another hundred jobs.”
IEDs: a militant’s “go-to” area denial tool
Royal Canadian Armed Forces personnel, who are currently preparing the ground for a major Land Electronic Warfare Modernization initiative (which seeks to improve the Army’s ability to operate in and dominate the electromagnetic spectrum), are acutely aware of the crucial importance of counter IED technology.
But politicians are less easy to convince. Elected officials would much rather have their pictures taken beside large naval ships and fighter jets. The upshot is that justifying investments related to the distinctly unglamorous IED threat - is often a challenge, particularly to the general public who cannot understand easily grasp the issue.
But that threat is real - and it goes far beyond the loss of life and injuries IEDs cause. The greater harm is that these explosive devices deny occupying forces easy access to strategic territory such as main supply routes (MSRs) and public spaces. IEDs thus hamper troop mobility, and increasingly confine larger forces to bases, which resistance forces dating back to Sun Tsu have set as a primary goal. Cut off from easy access to local populations, occupying forces, such as the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, could not easily build support in the local population, a key element in General David Petraeus’s “clear and hold” strategy, leaving open fertile ground for insurgents.
In Canada’s case the IED threat dramatically increased the cost of the Afghanistan deployment, as force mobility was threatened to the point that the Department of National Defence was forced to buy five Boeing CH-147D Chinook heavy-left transport helicopters to move personnel around. The irony is that, judging from past Canadian involvements in Somalia, Kosovo, Libya and Afghanistan, all of which either did or could have evolved into “boots on the ground” scenarios, almost any conceivable deployment of Canadian Forces personnel during coming decades will likely be in a failed state situation where IEDs are likely to be a primary threat to soldiers’ lives.
In fact fear of IEDs was a key reason, that western forces were unable ensure an effective government transition in Libya, after they successfully coordinated the overthrow of the Khadafy regime, as they in large part precluded possible deployment of ground troops there. As a result, despite a hugely successful air campaign led by Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, a Canadian, killings remain a part of daily life in Libya to this day and the country remains broken into fiefdoms ruled by independent militias, or in at least one case, rebel forces. A similar fear of IEDs excluded Western intervention in the bloodbath currently taking place in Syria where reports say as many as 150,000 have died.
IED countermeasures: among the most effective dollar-for-dollar defence investments
Department of National Defence officials are also are well aware of the stakes involved. While precise deliverables of its Land Electronic Warfare Modernization initiative have yet to be defined, they will likely include upgraded electronic counter measures, support systems, attack systems, coupled with electromagnetic spectrum planning, management and analysis tools.
Bobby Strawbridge, a former British Army officer, who has been conducting counter IED operations dating back to tours in Northern Ireland early in his career and who is now Allen Vanguard’s director (ECM program business development) is not shy about who Canada should partner with. “We are the electronic counter measures incumbent for DND and RCMP needs and are targeting new programs in the office particularly CFLEW Modernization.”
Strawbridge is categorical: “Investments by western defence forces in countering recent advances in IED deployment capabilities are likely to be among the most effective use of their budgets, says Strawbridge. “That applies not only to lives saved, but also to their capacity to deploy.”
Systems not boxes
Mark Henry, Allen Vanguard’s product line director (integrated solutions) agrees. Henry is another tough ex-British Army officer, who joined Med-Eng (which was subsequently acquired by Allen Vanguard and then later divested) in 2005. His role, which includes primary responsibility for the Canadian, African and South American markets, provides him with a unique vantage point from which to contribute towards Allen Vanguard’s evolving counter-measures strategies.
“We sell systems not just boxes,” says Henry. “While the jamming equipment we supply is important, electronic countermeasures are an art not a science. The training that our team of experts provide users in dealing with the ongoing and ever-evolving threats, coupled with the intelligence tools we supply, are crucial in helping both our Canadian and international customers to effectively leverage the technology.”
Terrorist IED techniques change constantly and vary from territory-to-territory, explains Henry. But they break down into three broad categories: time (time-bombs), victim (booby traps) and radio-operated devices. The latter of category is by far the most dangerous. Common ignition tools include garage door openers, remote controlled toy car systems, walkie-talkies and of course mobile telephones. Allen Vanguard thus invests considerable time and effort in tracking IED incidents and capabilities around the world, and feeding that information to its clients.
One key Allen Vanguard capability offering is TRITON (Terrorist Related Incidents of a Technical or Operational Nature), an open source data-base, that the company developed, which provides customers with monthly and “quick look” reports (QLR) about recent attacks. Allen Vanguard officials collect technical information about new potential IED trigger devices and then run them past a spectrum analyser, to find out what frequency they run on, so that a jamming capability can be implemented. Over the years, more than 160,000 incident records have been categorized in the TRITON library.
“Leveraging spectrum correctly is crucial,” says Henry. “You don’t want to waste too much power on one particular threat. We also need to work closely with end users as the threats and spectrum allocations will be different in the various markets we operate in such as Australia and Thailand.”
Which way forward for Canada?
The Canadian Armed Forces’ current planning calls for an investment of between $100 million and $250 million in land electronic warfare modernization, over the coming two decades. That is relatively modest amount given the stakes involved coupled with the fact that counter RCIED technology will likely comprise just a fraction of that total. Project approval definition is expected by the spring of 2016 and initial operation capability projected for 2019, a full five years from now.
How that money will be spent is an open question. Right now the CF uses a range of portable, mobile and vehicle mounted systems. Equipping and upgrading Canada’s Special Forces, notably the elite Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) which can deploy, often secretly, and on a moment’s notice, will likely be a key priority. However after that, the picture blurs somewhat.
One natural evolution would see Canadian Forces gradually phase in use of Allen Vanguard’s Equinox advanced technology, which can act in active jamming mode, as well as in reactive and hybrid configurations. The Equinox, which can be pre-programmed to jam a range of frequencies, can also be configured to listen for suspicious signals. If it detects such suspicious signals it can then switch to active mode. The Equinox can also lock onto transmissions and use direction finders to lock on to the fixer, thus turning the technology into an offensive weapon.
“Countering RCIEDs is best done using a systematic approach,” says Dithubide. “It starts with identifying the threat in the country or area you are operating in; selecting and procuring the right ECM equipment; developing and implementing standard operating procedures; establishing a training regime; deploying the equipment on operations and supporting the equipment in the field. The good news is that we have solutions to help our clients to do all of those things right now, at this crucial time. The Canadian Forces clearly need to upgrade their capabilities in this key area. We hope to help them to do just that.”
Name: Allen Vanguard
Parent company name/information: Versa Capital
Key contacts: Michael Dithurbide, vice-president (electronic systems)
Services offered: Electronic countermeasures, jammers, RF dominance, training, intelligence
Number of employees: 40+, sub-contractors (100+)
Locations: Ottawa, Arlington (U.S.), Tewkesbury (U.K.)
Export markets: Global
Highlight this quote:
“If we think that the IED threat is going away we’re dreaming. It’s going to confront us operationally and domestically for decades.”
Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).
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