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‘Rock Phones’ could help U.S. forces pursue Osama bin Laden inside caves

Osama and "Rock Phone"

Osama bin Laden may still be hiding in a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan, so the U.S. Army is procuring extraordinary communications gear that can transmit voice and data through rock and earth, which would enable U.S. troops to talk with each other underground as they are closing in on the “most wanted” Al Qaeda leader and his cohorts.

The U.S. Army intends to make a sole source purchase of an innovative communications system, known as the Rock Phone, which would enable Army personnel to communicate wirelessly in caves, tunnels, mines and large building structures, where traditional radio frequency (RF) cannot penetrate.

Scott Dern, an Army contracting official at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, told GSN that he had “absolutely no idea” how the Army intends to use the Rock Phone, but Dern did not dismiss the possibility that it could help Army personnel to communicate inside the caves and rugged mountains of Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden supposedly has been hiding for many years.

Dern said he did not know the specific application that his Army colleagues have in mind for the Rock Phone when it is fielded at some point in the future. “We deal almost entirely with R&D and testing these products,” he said. “We work with the engineers who are developing them.”

The sole source firm fixed-price purchase order will be awarded to Ultra Electronics, of Nova Scotia, Canada, a subsidiary of a UK-based corporation, according to a U.S. Army presolicitation notice posted online on May 18.

“This system utilizes The Magneto-Inductive (MI) communications channel, which provides users with the capability of wireless communication through media that radio frequency (RF) cannot penetrate,” says the Army notice. “This is effective when intervening media is not penetrable by radio waves, such as into caves, mines, tunnels and large building structures.”

Stephen Parsons, a business development manager for Ultra Electronics, who was asked by GSN whether the Army might be planning to use this communications gear in pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, said, “Essentially, you’re pretty well accurate there.”

Parsons said he had no idea if U.S. Army or special operations personnel have already pinpointed any specific location where bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders may be hiding. “I don’t know if they have intel about their positions,” he said.

However, Parsons was quick to point out that the Rock Phone would be very useful on such a hypothetical mission. “It would be very attractive to people doing underground operations,” he acknowledged.

“The Magneto Inductive Rock Phones provide users with the ability to communicate remotely,” explains Ultra Electronics on its Web site. “The MI communications signal goes through rock, earth, vegetation, and most urban structures and does not require Line-of-Sight (LOS) positions to establish communications links.”

The hand-held devices allows secure two-way communications and supports one hour of “talk” time plus 20 hours of “listen” time on a fully charged battery, says Ultra Electronics.

“Rock Phones can be interfaced with any voice radio system to provide the capability for reestablishing radio contact when separated by intervening media and Line-of-Sight (LOS) obstructions,” says the company’s Web site.

Ultra Electrons also supplies the U.S. Army with a special detonating device, known as MI-RAMS, which can transmit a signal through rock or earth that can detonate explosives remotely. In fact, Parsons said it received a $5.7 million order for MI-RAMS from U.S. special forces on May 14.

“The MI-RAMS consists of transmitters and receivers that will allow communication with weapons through any type of material,” said a technical paper written by engineers and researchers at Picatinny Arsenal. “Weapons that have Magneto Inductive receivers and fuses installed will allow hand-held, man-portable, and possibly remotely emplaced controllers (activation systems) to communicate with and to arm and fire the weapons on command. Transmitters will penetrate 150 to 500 meters of any material (soil rock, etc), and vehicle mounted versions will penetrate 1000 to 1500 meters.”

It is plausible that U.S. forces could attempt to identify the secret locations used by bin Laden, close in on those locations underground while maintaining communications with one another with Rock Phones, emplace explosives near bin Laden’s hideout and then detonate those explosives remotely with MI-RAMS.


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