Amid new threats to aviation, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wants the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to move more quickly in deploying an advanced scanning system to airport checkpoints to screen carry-on bags.

“I think I speak for almost every member of this committee that we need to take quicker action,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said during a Nov. 30 hearing to discuss global and domestic terrorism and other threats to the U.S. “There is technology available today,” he said, referring to computed tomography (CT) systems that are being evaluated at two airports as a potential replacement for Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray systems currently used to screen carry-on bags at U.S. airports.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul mentioned that he sent a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke requesting that the CT technology be deployed sooner rather than later. Duke, who testified at the hearing, said she agrees on the need to get the CT systems into the field but that accompanying software algorithms need to be developed first to “make sure that the machines can detect what we need them to detect.”

“We agree with you that computed tomography, or CT, is essential, is part of our plan to raise the baseline of aviation security,” Duke told McCaul. She added that, “we, along with our foreign partners, are making that the new standard for passenger baggage.”

The CT technology is already the baseline for checked baggage screening. The Transportation Security Administration currently purchases CT-based explosives detection systems from Leidos [LDOS], L3 Technologies [LLL] and Smiths Detection for automatic explosives threat detection in checked bags.

Using the CT technology at the checkpoint is expected to enhance operators’ ability to detect explosives in carry-on bags and ultimately, with the automated detection capabilities, allow travelers to keep liquids and electronic devices in their bags, while also increasing throughput.

The TSA buys AT X-ray systems from OSI Systems’ [OSIS] Rapiscan division and Smiths Detection. Although the AT systems are aging, the agency is buying additional ones as it sorts out its acquisition plans for CT at the checkpoint.

A House Homeland Security Committee aide told Defense Daily that McCaul and Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who chairs the subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security, wrote the letter to Duke earlier in November. “We are awaiting the Department’s official reply,” the aide said in response to an email query.

A TSA spokeswoman told Defense Daily that the David Pekoske, the agency’s administrator, “has stated publicly that he is eager to get the CT scanners deployed to checkpoints to improve security effectiveness. However, the FY18 budget has yet to be approved and that budget will be the indicator as to how many units we will be able to purchase and then deploy. In a proactive effort to address these needs, we worked closely with OMB and Congress to reprogram some funds in FY2017 to begin developmental and algorithm work.”

Late in the summer, TSA reprogrammed $15 million in FY ’17 monies toward its CT at the checkpoint work. From those funds, the agency awarded contracts to Analogic [ALOG], Integrated Defense and Security Solutions (IDSS), L3 and Smiths Detection to work on the Acceptable Property Screening System standard for the CT systems.

CT systems for checkpoint use developed by IDSS and L3 are both in evaluations by TSA at different U.S. airports and the agency is expected early next year to begin evaluating Analogic’s system as well.

Joseph Paresi, CEO of IDSS, told Defense Daily on Thursday that his company’s CT system, the DETECT 1000, is far along in the process of being qualified to the latest TSA standards and is hopeful that by next June or July his company could be under contract to begin delivering systems by the end of 2018. Paresi’s thinking is in line with what other TSA and industry officials have said in terms of how soon the CT technology can begin to be deployed to airport checkpoints, assuming qualifications and approvals proceed relatively smoothly.

McCaul told Duke that rather than wait until the latest detection algorithms are available for the checkpoint CT systems “I think we should look at it from the other way around. We should deploy the technology today and stop procuring these X-ray machines. Deploy that technology today and then upgrade the software when it becomes available at a later date.”

McCaul’s urgency on the CT systems follows a failed terrorist bomb plot in Australia involving checked baggage in July and, more recently, a classified report by the DHS Office of Inspector General that said covert testing at airport checkpoints has shown vulnerabilities in security screening technology and in the performance of TSA screeners.

Nicholas Rasmussen, the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the committee that in the past year there has been a “resurgence of aviation threats, reaching a level of concern that we in the intelligence community have not faced since AQAP’s printer package plot back in 2010.”

AQAP refers to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the 2010 plot failed after intelligence was shared that bombs were placed inside printers that were already bound for the U.S. aboard passenger and cargo planes. The intelligence led to searches of the planes in Britain and Dubai before departing to the U.S. and the final legs of their trips.

“Terrorists have shown themselves to be persistent, out of the box thinkers with respect to aviation,” Rasmussen said.