Diego Union Tribune
April 9, 2005
U.S. has some success countering bombs
Blasts set off remotely decline, as do casualties
By Otto Kreisher
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – The deadliest enemy weapon in Iraq sometimes is hidden in a shoe box, or in a pile of garbage, or even a dead dog, and may be triggered by a garage door opener, a toy-car remote control or a cell phone.
These deceptively crude weapons, called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have caused more than half of the 1,543 deaths and 11,664 injuries Americans have suffered in Iraq. And they are beginning to take a toll in Afghanistan.
Members of Congress complain that the services have not done enough to counter these deadly weapons and are offering millions of dollars to fight the problem.
But Pentagon officials say they have moved aggressively to field protective devices and to initiate new tactics to reduce the IED threat.
Those efforts appear to be paying off as the number of successful IED attacks has plummeted and U.S. casualties have dropped sharply in recent months.
"There is no silver bullet out there now. But there is a lot of effort and a lot of programs trying to solve the problem," Brig. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said recently.
The IEDs are the latest twist in an historic pattern of combatants using low-tech but deadly weapons against a technologically superior force.
In Vietnam, crude booby traps and cheap land mines killed or wounded thousands of American troops. Many of the booby traps were assembled from U.S. munitions and hidden along well-used patrol routes and supply roads.
In Iraq, most of the IEDs are made from mortar or artillery shells taken from the hundreds of huge ammunition depots that U.S. troops failed to secure after defeating Saddam Hussein's forces two years ago.
Individually or in groups, those shells are connected to detonators that can be triggered by wire, or more often by wireless signals, by an insurgent hiding along the streets or highways used by American patrols or supply convoys.
Some are buried quickly in the dirt along the roads, or under the spreading mounds of rubbish, or hidden in other unexpected spots.
"Dirt, garbage, signs, cars, donkeys, gravel, vegetable carts, dead dogs – you name it and an IED has been found hidden in it," a soldier told an embedded reporter recently.
Over the last year, the use of these weapons soared from one or two a day to as many as 30 daily, blasting Humvees, trucks and even armored vehicles and tanks to pieces, and killing or maiming soldiers and Marines by the score.
The bloody toll triggered demands for action from lawmakers.
The Pentagon reacted, at first hesitantly but with increasing urgency to add armor to the vehicles in Iraq and to find ways to counter IEDs.
Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, said every IED incident is reported quickly to a multiservice task force so analysts can study it, looking for trends.
The task force has spent at least $450 million searching for IED countermeasures and buying thousands of a device that can jam the signal from some of the remote triggering instruments.
But the initial jammer, called Warlock, was not effective against all the remote signals. The Pentagon now is rushing to Iraq a new device, called the IED Countermeasure Equipment, which was developed by an Army agency and turned over to contractors for rapid production.
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said the Marines are sending 1,066 of the devices to Iraq and plan to buy another 2,500. The Army is purchasing 3,000, Mattis told a congressional committee last week.
The new jammer, at $12,000 each, is one-third the price of the Warlock device and can be reprogrammed to counter different frequencies as the insurgents change their triggering systems.
But the services are not relying solely on added vehicle armor and jammers.
Hagee and other military leaders described a computerized system that analyzes factors such as the location and type of IED attacks and where the jammers and armored vehicles are. That allows planners to reroute convoys, or reassign vehicles or jammers in response to the higher threats, Hagee told reporters.
The services also are using manned and unmanned aircraft to monitor the highly traveled routes, looking for changes that could indicate a hidden IED.
And commanders in Iraq are reporting a sharp increase in tips from Iraqis that help them find IEDs before they can be triggered and caches of munitions that could be turned into the deadly bombs.
Hagee said the combination of jammers and greater cooperation from local Iraqis leaders in Anbar province has led to "the number of incidents dropping dramatically."
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said the same factors cut the percentage of IED incidents that injured or killed U.S. troops from 90 to about 25 percent.
Equally dramatic is the drop in U.S. casualties, from 137 killed, including 83 Marines, in November, to 36, including four Marines, in March.
But the military is searching for even better solutions to the IED threat.
Rear Adm. Jay Cohen, chief of naval research, said the Navy is spending 10 percent of its basic research budget in the search for a device that "replicates a dog's nose, because that's the sensitivity we need to detect, defeat and destroy IEDs, at speed and at range."