New CVCAD Program Seeks to Protect Warfighters from the Enemy They Can’t See

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Soldiers of 2d Battalion, 198th Armored Regiment, Mississippi Army National Guard, clear their M-40 protective gas mask while a chemical threat from a simulated scud missile attack is underway. (Mississippi National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Veronica McNabb, 184th Sustainment Command)

One of the main priorities or focuses of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is to increase the survivability of its warfighters. And that’s a difficult task since there are a vast number of risks and threats that the warfighter faces when deployed. Among the most frightening and dangerous of those threats are the unseen ones – intangible adversaries that can be just as dangerous and deadly to the warfighter as a kinetic attack.

These invisible adversaries take the form of deadly vapors and chemicals that can impact warfighters and leave them incapacitated, disabled, or worse. To help warfighters battle back against these invisible enemies, the DoD is looking to equip all soldiers with a mobile device capable of detecting and helping them avoid chemical warfare agents.

The program to develop these sensors is called the Compact Vapor Chemical Agent Detector (CVCAD) program. To learn more about where this program is in its lifecycle, what the DoD is looking to accomplish with the program, and the capabilities that they’re looking for in this system, we sat down with Dr. Scott Combs, the Value Stream Leader for Chemical Sensing and Detection at Collins Aerospace.

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): Can you tell our readers a bit about the CVCAD program? Who is running this program, and what are they trying to develop for the warfighter?

Dr. Scott Combs: CVCAD is a soldier-worn detector designed to be unobtrusive while providing chemical detection capability that continuously and autonomously monitors and alerts warfighters of an unsafe environment.

This is accomplished without burdening the warfighter’s payload or interfering with the primary mission. The small form factor is amenable to both soldier-worn and unmanned aerial or ground system operations to enable timely personnel protective action and other force protection decisions.

CVCAD is a program of record funded and jointly managed by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Joint Science and Technology Office, and by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical Biological and Radiological/Nuclear Defense (JPEO CBRND).

Collins is building on work previously completed on the ThreatShieldTM unit – a rugged, compact, high-performance chemical threat detector.

“The Army doesn’t have individual sensors for each of its soldiers, as it has traditionally relied on larger, bulkier, and more expensive detectors and alarms for chemical hazard detection. These legacy systems aren’t as practical for modern soldiers and maneuverable units…” – Dr. Scott Combs

Military chemical sensors already exist such as the Joint Chemical Agent Detector (JCAD), but the handheld ThreatShield-mini™ system is a highly capable, next-gen sensor that is lighter and smaller, and uses less power than the JCAD.

TMB: Why is chemical detection so important for today’s military? Does the re-emergence of near-peer, pacing threats increase the likelihood that our warfighters will face these types of threats?

Dr. Scott Combs: Potential adversaries have created new threats that are easy to use and can evade traditional defenses. In fact, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense programs, Deborah Rosenblum, characterized the growing chemical and biological threat as “vastly more difficult” and “rapidly changing.”

Recent sarin and chlorine chemical weapon deployment in Syria, as well as the use of K-51 gas grenades by Russian forces in Ukraine, highlight the continuing need for chemical detection for U.S. military readiness. This shows that near-peer adversaries are developing and deploying chemical attacks, and superior detection and intelligence-gathering systems for these threats need to be employed as soon as possible.

TMB: Is the wearable CVCAD simply a solution for the warfighter, or can the device – or the sensors in the device – also be used in conjunction with other platforms, such as UAS?

Dr. Scott Combs: The Army doesn’t have individual sensors for each of its soldiers, as it has traditionally relied on larger, bulkier, and more expensive detectors and alarms for chemical hazard detection.  These legacy systems aren’t as practical for modern soldiers and maneuverable units, they aren’t engineered for multiple platforms, and they are sensitive only to a limited number and level of chemical hazards.

The Collins-developed ThreatShield Hand-Held Chemical Detector.

Lightweight, wearable devices – such as CVCAD or ThreatShield-mini™ – can be deployed on multiple platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) as well as currently-fielded platforms, such as the Stryker fighting vehicle. These systems are well adapted to providing chemical detection data without impeding the data flow for other sensors and systems already deployed on a given platform.

In addition, the detection libraries of these newer systems can be expanded to include new threats, or be programmed to seek individual threats for specific missions and specialized operations.

TMB: The military has been laser-focused on enabling Joint Multi-Domain Operations (JMDO). Could the CVCAD sensor be a connected sensor that can give all military branches and our coalition allies a better, shared understanding of the battlefield? What benefits would that enable?

Dr. Scott Combs: Collins envisions the future need for networked chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) sensors that can seamlessly share information with each other and higher-level systems.  While CVCAD does not currently have a requirement to be connected directly with integrated sensor warning and reporting capabilities for command and control systems, it would not be difficult to add that capability.

CVCAD and ThreatShield-mini™ do provide frontline warfighters with actionable information at the speed of relevance. And they accomplish this without requiring the flow of data that would consume a large fraction of the bandwidth needed for a set of system-mounted sensors.

“Collins envisions the future need for networked chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) sensors that can seamlessly share information with each other and higher-level systems.” – Dr. Scott Combs

This “low bandwidth” design is a major part of Collins’ efforts to allow the deployment of these new sensors in the connected battlespace.

TMB:
In the past year, we’ve seen the military place an order for AR glasses for the warfighter and seen the introduction of other “heads-up” displays and devices that make information readily available and easily accessible for the warfighter. Is this something CVCAD could interoperate with or integrate with? What benefits could this enable? What would be needed to make this possible?

Dr. Scott Combs: As Collins continues to move into the connected battlespace arena, we envision a sensor that allows full integration with all aspects of the dataflows a warfighter receives. CVCAD already has its own inherent auditory, vibratory, and visual display alarms, and Collins envisions the system interfacing with any soldier-worn or carried system.

For the example of the heads-up display, CVCAD would provide a small indicator for a chemical threat just like other indicators that are displayed in the goggles.  Little to no change to the goggles interface would be needed and no significant changes to the current CVCAD design would be required.

A soldier wearing the goggles would see an indicator within the goggles display and no additional alarm would be needed from the CVCAD system.

TMB: Where is the CVCAD program right now? Is this a multi-stage program? Where are we in the program lifecycle and how many steps or stages are there before the military has selected a CVCAD solution? Once a solution is identified, how long before it’s rolled out to the warfighter?

Dr. Scott Combs: CVCAD is a four-phase, JPEO-funded program. The initial CVCAD prototype design was formulated in phase one and testing of the sensor package was completed.

“Recent sarin and chlorine chemical weapon deployment in Syria, as well as the use of K-51 gas grenades by Russian forces in Ukraine, highlight the continuing need for chemical detection for U.S. military readiness.” – Dr. Scott Combs

We are currently in phase two, and numerous CVCAD prototypes are progressing through battlespace testing, which is being led by JPEO.  All testing has been passed to date and we are moving into the final part of phase two testing, which involves chemical testing.  This includes not only the chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemical targets of interest, but also the detection of the lower explosive limit and oxygen, as well.

A primary goal for this final phase two testing is the unambiguous detection of the targets and the minimization of any false alarms.  Phases three and four will involve an upgrade to the prototype design and the creation of more than 100 of these prototypes for further military trials and testing.

Successful completion will see deliveries to the warfighter starting in late 2026.