Science & Environment

What do UK's military scientists do on the frontline?

QRH soldiers in Lashkar Gah, Helmand
Image caption Science advisers will try to find technical solutions to challenges encountered on the frontline

It's a little known fact that the UK Ministry of Defence deploys scientists to the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what do military science advisers do?

To find out, Quentin Cooper from BBC Radio 4's Material World programme interviewed Nick Barrett, programme leader for support to operations at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

QC: Nick, a lot of us are used to the idea that alongside soldiers there are embedded journalists. But aside from medics and engineers, we don't really hear about scientists going to war.

NB: I guess it's not something which has received a lot of media attention in the past, but it's a growing capability. It's a growing initiative to send scientists on to the front line to assist and support our troops.

So this is equivalent to the post we're familiar with the government having, of chief scientific adviser and of scientific advisers in different departments? So there will be a military equivalent, per regiment, per battalion or location?

Yes - it's not as high status as a CSA (chief scientific adviser), but it's an adviser that is embedded within a headquarters, typically. So we have two based at Camp Bastion (in Helmand Province, Afghanistan), at the headquarters of joint force support, and we have one scientific adviser based at Task Force Helmand based at Lashkar Gah. We also have three operational analysts split between those headquarters as well.

Image caption Nick Barrett underwent extensive training before he was deployed as a science adviser in Afghanistan

So we're only talking about a small number in total?

Well, we have other roles. There are other roles at Bastion. We have had some staff at Kabul, we've had staff at Kandahar. So currently, we have something like 13 established roles in Afghanistan and something like four contractors.

What is the role then - is it to advise on anything that has a scientific dimension? Or is it more about observing and learning so we can benefit for future conflicts.

It's a bit of both, not so much the future conflicts, but future conduct of that current conflict. So it's to observe and learn - to understand the technical problems our troops have. They won't necessarily see them as technical problems, but they will identify capability gaps that might have a technical solution. It's our job to be there to help them with those.

Presumably, you cannot be expert in all the different areas of science. Is it about being well connected so that when somebody comes to you with a problem, you know who to get on the phone or internet?

Yes, the scientific advisers deploy effectively as the mouthpiece for DSTL - the science part of the MOD. Whilst there, they have their own subject matter expertise which they can put that to good use. They are trained scientists who are good at experimentation. But when questions fall outside their remit, or even if it is something for which they don't have the research papers - for want of a better phrase - at their disposal, they can reach back to DSTL (in the UK). There are 3,500 scientists and engineers at DSTL that can answer those questions and give them the deep subject matter expertise and advice that they need.

Image caption Scientific intervention led to the development of so-called "blast pants" to protect the groin

What about your own background?

I started working at Porton Down (DSTL's headquarters in Wiltshire) nearly 16 years ago now. I'm a chemist by trade - I worked in chemical defence areas and then started getting involved in support to operations. I deployed to Afghanistan as a scientific adviser in 2007 and of course for a chemist, there are niche areas where chemistry is relevant to current operations and lots of areas where it's not. So I had to undergo a very extensive training programme so I had awareness of those wider areas of defence science and technology so that I could identify issues, pass them back to the UK and get the right advice. I've now moved into a role where I am responsible for the oversight of our deployed roles, so I get involved in recruitment and support from the UK for our people in theatre.

How frustrating or useful is it being a scientist on the battlefield or in a war zone? It must be as far as you can get from the controlled conditions scientists usually hanker after?

It's not frustrating, but it certainly takes a particular mindset to be a scientist who then wants to mix it and get their hands dirty with the military. You don't deploy forward to the real danger zones. But you are in headquarters, in a pretty austere environment. But whilst you're not in as controlled an environment as you'd like to be, you are in a position to have a major impact for the troops on the ground. So that is immensely rewarding.

Can you give me a concrete example or two of things that have come out of this kind of scientific involvement?

We have a trials area which we have established out in Camp Bastion and that we use to test equipment designed to detect IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) - also known as roadside bombs. This testing in the trials compound run by the scientific adviser in theatre has been used a number of times over the last few years. What that does is enable the scientific adviser to provide advice to the procurement arm of the MOD on how well that equipment operates and what the benefits and limitations of that device are in theatre.

Image caption Countering the threat from IEDs is a constantly evolving game of cat-and-mouse

So what sort of advice is given?

The advice will be: it works in these sorts of conditions, it doesn't work so well in those conditions, it works well in that sort of environment. We've got to think of interoperability other pieces of equipment - does communications equipment interfere, for example? It's very difficult to mirror the communications environment in Afghanistan back in the UK. So the scientific adviser will collate all that evidence and all that data from their testing and trials and send it back to the UK. That will go to the procurers. If the equipment is already deployed, they will provide advice to staff on how to use that equipment while they're in theatre.

What are people now wearing or doing differently in terms of IEDs thanks to scientific intervention?

If you compare it to when I deployed as scientific adviser in 2007, the uniform that the troops wear is different. Some of the protection equipment is different. You may have heard of the pelvic protection which was deployed a couple of years ago. Every member of the armed forces who deploys in Afghanistan gets what is called tier one pelvic protection which is effectively a set of underpants which are made of silk and are ballistically tested. They provide protection against some of the fragmentation that you get during IED events.

If you said to someone who's not there that one of the things you need for protection is silk boxer shorts, it wouldn't immediately seem like common sense.

No - it doesn't and this is where having the scientists and technologists involved is important for pointing out the benefit. It doesn't say that by putting on a pair of these, the person gets ultimate protection. But these boxer shorts will reduce the severity of injuries significantly, so they can be of great benefit - and have been of great benefit - to the troops who are unfortunate enough to be involved in these incidents.

You can read more about science advisers on the DSTL Support to Operations blog

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