By LCol D.W. Corbett and Lt(N) K.P. McNamara, Canadian Forces Counter IED Task Force, Ottawa
Photo: A Canadian counter-IED team disposes of captured insurgent explosive devices near Kandahar airfield.
CAPTION: Canadian Forces Combat Camera
In a quiet corner of the lab, a graduate of the Canadian Police College Forensic Identification Services course is carefully processing material collected from a crime scene. After what seems like hours, the technician recovers a critical piece of information, successfully attributing it to a known bomb maker.
On the other side of the lab, another technician processes a component from an improvised explosive device (IED) and learns exactly how it operates. Elsewhere, an explosives technician is x-raying IED components to determine how the device functioned.
Far from being your typical forensics lab, these are daily activities in the Canadian Forces’ (CF) Level 2 exploitation lab in Afghanistan. More significantly, the technicians are not police officers, but rather members of the CF.
The exploitation lab is a military facility that permits rapid technical examination of something new, modified or unexpected within the area of operations. The item or information is initially exploited to determine if it represents an advantage for the enemy or a technical surprise for friendly forces.
If it does, the information or item then undergoes increasing levels of analysis until a countermeasure is developed and the technological advantage is neutralized. While a single weapon or technology seldom means the difference between final victory and defeat, it can give one side a battlefield advantage.
The CF has developed many new capabilities in the near decade of the Afghanistan conflict. One of the most significant is battlefield forensics, which permits our military members to link insurgents to specific events and remove them from the battlefield. In addition, the information gleaned enhances our ability to protect ourselves, our coalition allies and the Afghan population.
Developing a new capability is not easy. Four years ago, forensics would not have been considered a combat enabler. In fact, from 2002 through 2006, evidence from roadside bombings and recovered material was simply ignored.
Then, in late 2006, the CF responded to a request for assistance from the United States and assigned a navy clearance diving officer to add his explosive ordnance disposal skills to the American Level 2 exploitation lab in Afghanistan.
Soon, the CF was employing small field exploitation teams, known as Level 1 exploitation teams, to examine the tactical situation of an event, such as why the enemy selected a particular location to initiate an attack, and to collect evidence for examination in the American labs.
To professionalize the capability, the CF, with the help of the Technical Operations branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, began training bomb technicians in detailed post-blast examination techniques and in processing material to the same evidentiary standards expected of a peace officer in the Canadian judicial system.
Because much of the material submitted for exploitation was processed in the U.S. or the United Kingdom, the CF might not have learned of crucial information for months — often far too late to take action.
To resolve this, the CF established in April 2009 a temporary Level 2 forensic facility at Kandahar, known as the Multi Disciplinary Exploitation Capability (MDEC). A Level 2 facility is intended to conduct non-destructive forensic technical exploitation in a rapid manner so as to be relevant to the tactical commander. Turn-around times soon went from months to days, or occasionally hours for sensitive cases.
Manned by eight CF personnel, the MDEC includes the capability to:
Information gained from the exploitation process is shared, to the greatest extent possible, with coalition partners and the Afghanistan government. It is also returned to Canada for use in training as well as for the benefit of government partners such as the RCMP, Public Safety Canada and Natural Resources Canada, among others. This cross-agency sharing is essential for the preparation of both field teams and lab personnel.
A CF field exploitation team faces challenges significantly different than what a public safety officer in Canada would. Time on scene may be as few as 10 minutes, while wearing full protective body armour in temperatures exceeding 50 C — and often under fire from the person who has committed the criminal act.
While the field teams are trained to operate to RCMP standards, the sites and circumstances they face are unlike that of a typical Canadian crime scene.
The teams must be able to quickly determine what evidence is critical and recover it immediately should a change in the tactical situation demand that the site be abandoned. Despite the hazard, the teams deal with the IEDs and collect the evidence necessary to support the fight. Evidence is photographed in-situ before being recovered and a chain of evidence is established.
By understanding both the RCMP standards and what may not be used because of the tactical situation, the material may subsequently be used for intelligence or prosecutorial proceedings by the judicial system of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).
Once recovered to a forward operating base, the material is confirmed to be physically, explosively and chemically safe for processing at the Level 2 lab. Material is re-photographed and a technical report prepared.
The submission is then prepared for shipment to Kandahar, where the material is again triaged to confirm safety and to establish processing priority.
While all evidence must be processed within 28 days, critical events, such as those related to a fatality, will be processed within hours. Normally, exploitation at the Canadian facility will be non-destructive to permit further exploitation.
The volume of material is staggering. From the date of its stand-up in April 2009 to the end of that year, the MDEC processed more than 500 cases. In 2010, that number was well exceeded.
As soon as possible, the results are passed to the troops on the ground and shared with allies. The material is either held at Kandahar for release to the GIRoA, destroyed, or sent to Canada.
In Canada, the material is delivered to one of the government Level 3 exploitation partners for more detailed exploitation. Level 3 involves scientific exploitation and is conducted in national laboratories.
Unlike our U.S. and U.K. allies, Canada employs a virtual Level 3 lab, which involves nearly a dozen different agencies and departments with capabilities distributed across the country. Their efforts are co-ordinated through an office in National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.
These exploitation efforts often result in the material being replicated to determine the potential impact on CF equipment or personnel, or it may be reverse engineered to determine the source of the components. The results are shared with CF troops and coalition partners.
Today, CF members are employing police-standard forensic practices that were completely unknown to them four years ago. But the road to achieve this new capability has not been without sacrifice.
To date, five Canadian exploitation team members have been killed in the line of duty: Warrant Officer Dennis Brown, Cpl Dany Fortin, Cpl Chad O’Quinn, Cpl Martin Dubé, and Petty Officer Craig Blake. Many others have been wounded.
But this type of work is here to stay. The MDEC, established as a temporary facility, will soon be replaced by a containerized deployable technical analysis laboratory. Moreover, the Government of Canada acknowledges the IED threat will continue to exist for at least the next 20 years.
It is only through a continued cooperation with partners, such as the RCMP, the Canadian Explosive Technicians Association and others, that the CF will be able to maintain the highest standards in readiness for future operations abroad, and in support of the Canada First Defence Strategy, the modernization plan for the CF.
Level 1 – Field Exploitation
Captures the incident context (scene and events) and preserves, recovers and identifies physical artifacts.
Level 2 – Technical Exploitation
Involves the detailed examination of physical artifacts, to confirm device make-up, design, methods of operation, capabilities, similarities to other devices, recover latent biometric material and support network analysis. There is some overlap between Level 2 and Level 3 exploitation although the Level 2 work will be intrusive but non-destructive whenever possible.
Level 3 – Scientific Exploitation
Conducted in national laboratories to confirm Level 2 technical findings and uses deeper procedures to extract as much information on submitted material as possible. The information is then disseminated to support the exploitation effort.