Sandia LabNews

Labs well-poised to serve US in war on terror

Sandia, with its long history of systems engineering savvy and with several counterterrorism technologies in the R&D pipeline and in the marketplace, is well-poised to answer the nation’s call in its time of need. And that’s no coincidence: Labs Executive VP Joan Woodard said last week that Sandia’s strategic planning going back several years has placed increasing importance — and funding, via discretionary mechanisms such as Laboratory Directed Research and Development dollars — on positioning Sandia to meet new unconventional threats to the nation’s security.

In a briefing at Sandia for Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Joan offered an overview of the Labs technical capabilities and technologies that may have relevance in the nation’s war on terrorism. Udall’s was the latest in a series of briefings for members of the New Mexico congressional delegation. Previously, briefings were provided for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

Joan acknowledged that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, "the phone’s been ringing a lot" at Sandia as various government agencies contact the Labs to see if it can offer solutions to specific technical problems. Joan noted that other national laboratories have seen a similar increase in contacts.

Joan described how the Labs’ research foundations — computation and informational sciences, engineering sciences, materials and process science, microelectronics and photonics sciences, and pulsed power sciences — can contribute solutions to a range of post-Cold War threat scenarios. Indeed, she said, the Labs’ newly articulated vision statement, "Helping our nation secure a peaceful and free world through technology," is a logical extension of its Cold War nuclear weapons mission, one that seeks to leverage fully the research foundations that represent a 50-year investment by the nation’s taxpayers.

Joan described under the heading "targets of terrorism" Labs capabilities in aviation security (work for the Federal Aviation Administration) and infrastructure protection (vulnerability-analysis software, architectural surety, and other protective/preventive technologies, many of which emerged out of Sandia’s nonproliferation work.).

Under the heading of "means of terrorism," Joan described a number of Labs-developed counter-technologies:

  • World-class bomb detection and disablement expertise, which capitalizes on Labs sensor technologies and robotics technologies.
  • Technologies that neutralize chemical and biological agents (the much publicized chem/biodecontamination foam developed at the Labs and now being deployed by licensees in the war on terrorism).
  • Medical surveillance (RSVP, or Rapid Syndrome Validation Project, software, now being prototyped in New Mexico, enables doctors to discern bio attack and disease-outbreak patterns much earlier than otherwise possible.)
  • Cyber security (software "intelligent agents" detect and foil sophisticated hacking attempts; a Red Team of Sandia "hackers" helps customers in government and industry identify weak spots in their cyber security systems).

Sandia’s sensor technologies give counterterrorism fighters a powerful suite of tools to detect, screen, monitor, and analyze a range of threats. Sandia sensors range from space-based thermal imagers to now-being-perfected microchemlabs (chemistry labs on one microchip) that are tiny, robust, versatile, and cost-effective enough to be widely deployed.

"I can’t overemphasize how important sensor development is," Joan said. "It’s just so important in so many areas."

Sandia’s computer modeling and simulation capabilities are being brought to bear in the new National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center. Sandia, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, industry, and other government agencies, uses computer tools to model interdependencies of the nation’s infrastructures. By understanding those connections, Joan said, planners can design systems that are resistant to the cascading effects of a failure or breakdown in one part of the system.

T.J. Allard of the Executive Staff Director office (12100) interjected that infrastructure surety, while vitally important, doesn’t have a clear and immediate payoff for industry. "It is invisible to shareholders; it’s hard to get the private sector to invest in this."

A number of Sandia technologies — chem/bio foam, bomb disablement technology, risk-analysis software, for example — are in the marketplace and are being brought to bear in the war on terrorism. And while other technologies are poised for wider use, the Labs needs to proceed deliberately. As Joan noted, "It had better be foolproof; it had better work 100 percent of the time."

Joan noted that in thinking about terrorism threats, it is useful to consider them as systems problems.

"We aren’t creative enough to think of every possible threat" a terrorist might concoct, she said. As such, countering terrorism requires a systems approach — Sandia’s strong suit. (As an example, there may be a number of ways a terrorist might attempt to seize control of an aircraft; a systems approach would not try to come up with a counter for each scenario. Rather, it would make the air travel system itself more attack-proof.)

Joan said it is not yet clear what the long-term impact of the nation’s war on terrorism will be on Sandia.

"In some areas, we’ll expect increased work, but in other areas our work may decline," she said. "It’s a matter of balancing federal priorities, and that’s something Congress needs to do."

Joan said she is aware of a strong sense of purpose across the laboratories she visits.

"Every time I talk to anyone who’s involved in this work, I hear the same thing: ‘It’s really sad that it took such an overwhelming event to jolt this nation, but we’re glad we have something to offer.’ "