Scientist supports military colleagues in Helmand

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

From Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan, MOD scientist Dr Peter Harvey explains the role of the Scientific Adviser. Ian Carr reports.

The light is disappearing rapidly, but the heat is lingering and the brooding bulk of the Mastiff parked on the road is starting to fade into the darkness. The anticipation is rising. We are just waiting for the Americans to arrive. For the last few months Dr Peter Harvey has been engaged in what he describes as a kind of detective story, a whodunnit. Who or what is causing the random, intermittent interference with various types of communication inside Camp Bastion?

Tonight in his role as sleuth, Scientific Adviser to UK forces Dr Harvey is conducting the second in a series of trials to eliminate possible suspects from his enquiries. It all started when his predecessor, Dr Neil Higson, while working on another task, was told that there may be a comms interference problem on site where scientific investigation may help solve the mystery. During the handover between Dr Higson and Dr Harvey the issue was raised again by the military:

They described the problem and said ‘we’ve tried, but we can’t find out what’s causing it. You’re the scientist, can you do it?’” said Dr Harvey.

At the moment the problem is only seen at Camp Bastion and, whilst it is not affecting operations, everyone is keen to sort it out before it gets worse:

So we had a think about what the possible causes could be, and how we might test them. You look at the most likely suspects first,” said Dr Harvey.

Lance Corporal Claire Scott, Corporal Amanda Giltrow and Lance Corporal Michelle Arnott of the Royal Signals prepare to take part in a trial using equipment in their Mastiff
Lance Corporal Claire Scott, Corporal Amanda Giltrow and Lance Corporal Michelle Arnott of the Royal Signals prepare to take part in a trial using equipment in their Mastiff [Picture: Corporal Dek Traylor, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

In this case, the most obvious source was thought to be ISAF vehicles unintentionally causing interference on the base - hence tonight’s appearance by the Mastiff crew. They are going to drive to a number of waypoints, fire up their vehicles, and the science team in Bastion are going to investigate any resulting disruptions.

Further trials will seek to eliminate other nations’ vehicles:

The US Marine Corps have equipment, as do the US Army, and the Jordanians, and the Danish - there are a lot of different types. So we are talking to each of these nations and asking - can you help us solve this problem?” said Dr Harvey.

As one of the largest multinational bases in Afghanistan, there are a number of ISAF partners who could both assist with the investigation and benefit from the solutions that Dr Harvey and the science team discover.

It is a good example of the kind of thing that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl’s) Scientific Advisers, who are collocated with the Equipment Capability branch in Joint Force Support HQ at Camp Bastion, are brought in to advise on:

We are here to provide impartial scientific advice to the commander and his staff, whenever it’s needed,” said Dr Harvey. “That could be a very quick turnaround to make a quick decision, or it could be something that needs deeper investigation.

The requests, which can come at any time, cover a huge range of subjects. Sometimes it involves the team in detailed trialling and research, such as when new protective equipment is being developed and tested. Often it’s an on-the-spot query such as ‘we’ve found some bags of fertiliser - is it suspicious?’

Solutions may require cutting-edge science and technology or involve no ‘Tomorrow’s World’ style input at all - for instance ensuring that road signs can be clearly understood by a range of different cultures.

The problem may be low-tech but the ramifications could be huge - imagine a situation where an innocent local misunderstands a series of road signs and finds himself driving the wrong way towards the heavily guarded gates of a base along a prohibited lane; it could provoke a tragic escalation of force. But a few well-designed road signs based on a scientific understanding of signage and human behaviour could help to avoid a bad situation.

But brainy as they undoubtedly are, how can the Scientific Advisers possibly be expected to know about all the areas of specialism that affect their military colleagues in theatre? Well of course they cannot, nor do they need to. What they do have is a hotline to the best science and engineering expertise that the international defence community can offer. It’s a process called ‘reachback’:

If we need technical advice we reach back in the first instance to Dstl. If it’s about equipment then the route is through DE&S [Defence Equipment and Support] and into industry if needs be,” said Dr Harvey.

Advice can also be sought from academia or other government departments.

In situations like this the Scientific Advisers provide an intelligent link between the military and the external experts by breaking down the problem into its essential parts. They then formulate the right question in scientific terms and back it up with all the relevant information that the experts will need to provide an answer:

We first describe the problem. Then we suggest a possible solution. The first question we then ask is ‘am I talking rubbish?’ Then we ask the experts if they can suggest an in-theatre solution,” said Dr Harvey.

Then, having received guidance from the experts, the Scientific Adviser must translate the response from science babble into military speak. There’s an art to it:

Look at this,” says Dr Harvey, brandishing what looks horribly like some advanced maths homework.

It’s a detailed response from the UK to a question Dr Harvey posed about the value of external ditches in protecting a perimeter wall from vehicle-borne explosives:

This is excellent. He [the UK scientist] has done a lot of work on this, and like any professional scientist he has shown that there is never just one answer to a problem.

Using graphs, equations and probability curves the report shows a range of results depending on different factors - how deep you dig the trench, the distance you put it from the wall, likely speed of vehicle.

But in this format it would be no use to the Colonel. What I will tell him is ‘if you dig a trench like this, you will have a 98 per cent chance of failure, if you build it like that, then you will have a 98 per cent chance of survival in these circumstances’. Then it’s up to him to decide the risk and whether it merits taking action.

In Dr Harvey’s world precision is important. You can’t get away with simply saying A is bigger than B:

If I said that I’d be asked ‘what do you mean? How much bigger is A than B - is it always bigger or does that vary over time? Does temperature affect that result? When you say bigger do you mean wider, taller, heavier?’ Every time I write a report I feel as if I am writing a PhD thesis.

If, as sometimes happens, the good doctor is presenting to the Brigadier, then the approach is even more tightly tuned:

The first question you ask is ‘how much time have I got?’ If it’s seven minutes, you make your pitch last six minutes - and you make sure you get all the main points into the first three in case he gets called away. It’s the reverse of how you would present a scientific paper, where you work through the methodology and explain your findings at the end.

And then there are projects like tonight’s, where the Scientific Advisers, working closely with their military colleagues, devise and run scientific trials to test new equipment or to solve problems. It is work that goes way beyond job satisfaction:

The responsibility of getting it right hits you like a sledgehammer when you get here,” said Dr Harvey. “Everything you do really matters. How often can you say that in a career?

And because it matters so much the attention to detail is absolute.

And what of tonight’s trial? Well, all you need to know is that the Mastiffs can be ruled out of the inquiry. Dr Harvey is pretty sure now what is causing the problem, and what to recommend to solve it. The rest is up to the military.

This article is taken from the October 2012 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.