There are 90 ways to detonate a roadside bomb.
Iraqi insurgents have progressed from simple trip wires to infrared devices to set off improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and this technological evolution points to an adaptive, nimble enemy.
"Sometimes it just goes to show you that a thinking, knowing enemy- an asymmetric enemy - in many ways has some advantages," said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, joint staff director for command, control, communications and computer systems, at the Milcom 2006 conference.
Coalition forces are engaged in an ongoing invisible combat in the radio and infrared spectra, officials at the conference said. And it is a battle where both sides are allocating resources to improve their warriors' knowledge and skills.
Richard Wittstruck, chief systems engineer at the Army's program executive office of intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors, said, "we have a silent and continuous war going on . It is truly spectral combat. They want to own and operate in areas of spectrum."
The Pentagon established the joint IED defeat task force in 2004. Since then, the use and effectiveness of the devices has evolved. Fifty-five U.S. troops lost their lives at the hands of insurgents using IEDs in October, the worst month since the war began, according to the Iraq Index, a report compiled by the Brookings Institute. The index does not track the number of IED-related injuries sustained by U.S. troops, or casualties suffered by Iraqi civilians, security forces or contractors.
Military and civilian experts working on the IED problem paint a picture of an enemy who is constantly improving his ability to manufacture and detonate such weapons.
Wittstruck said while the task force's immediate goal is to develop technology that can prevent IEDs from exploding, there are long-term issues. "The whole art of this is one of human dimension and understanding your enemy and how he or she employs and places and executes their mission."
The enemy is not a ragtag bunch of rebels running around with AK-47s, officials said. The early stated goal of finding high-tech solutions to defeat a low-tech weapon is giving way to the realization that the bombs are growing in sophistication.
While the Pentagon's IED task force is taking a holistic approach - spending millions of dollars on bettering armor, boosting training and developing sensors - the enemy also is making long-term plans and spending its funds accordingly, Wittstruck said.
Extremist groups are sending recruits to engineering colleges and universities to learn how to both manufacture IEDs and control radio spectrum. Citing intelligence reports, he said terrorist cells see education as a key to succeeding in "spectral combat."
"There's clearly evidence of an investment by the enemy to send their members to higher education institutes," Wittstruck said. A terrorist cell with $50 million at its disposal has the option of spending its funds on weapons, or sending 1,000 students to universities to learn information technology or radio engineering, Wittstruck said.
He declined to say if some of these engineers were receiving their training in the United States. "Whether they're here or there is really irrelevant. What is relevant is they're making that conscious institutional investment in a training program to make sure these individuals have the education tools to apply their trade."
U.K. Royal Marines Maj. Gen. J. B. Dutton, commander of multinational division southeast Iraq, said in a Pentagon briefing that some advanced IED technology is coming from Iran, although he stopped short of accusing the Iranian government of direct involvement. The devices his troops have encountered range from simple bombs that could be constructed on a table top, to sophisticated technology requiring a small factory. The high-tech roadside bombs his troops encounter are coming from Iran, he said.
"We know where the technological know-how comes from, and we suspect where the parts come from," Dutton said. "Where they're actually put together is something that we're working on trying to establish."
Army Brig. Gen. Susan Lawrence, chief information officer and director, command, control, communications and computers, J6, said the problem goes beyond Iraq's border because terrorist cells and insurgents are using the Internet to find recruits. From January to October last year, insurgents signed up 500 suicide bombers. "They are using the Internet against us," she said.
The human element of the IED problem is being addressed, according to Starnes Walker, Office of Naval Research chief scientist. Social and behavioral scientists are part of a holistic approach, he said in a statement. "I'd like to be able to pick the terrorist out. I'd like a detector 'tricorder' for intent or evil. I'd like to know ahead of time that this person is planning to hurt other people with the use of IEDs."
In the short-term, IEDs continue to plague troops. There is no silver bullet to defeat the 90 different detonation methods, Pentagon officials have said.
For bombs triggered through the airwaves, the battle for control of the radio spectrum continues. While the Pentagon has released few details on the specific technology it is using to thwart the bombs, several officers at the Milcom conference said radio jammers have shown their limitations.
"We have incident after incident of collisions, near misses and a commander having to turn off his jammer . so he can talk on the radio," Lawrence said. "This is a huge challenge that we've got to work on very quickly."
If a patrol comes under attack and a soldier creates a notch in the jammer's frequency to radio for help, the unit opens the door for insurgents to find that hole and detonate a roadside bomb, said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, commander of the 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces, at a gathering of military writers recently.
The issue of "electronic fratricide," where friendly communications or jammers cause outages detrimental to U.S. forces, is growing, Buchanan said, adding that he's never seen a worse electronic environment. "Around the Baghdad area, my pilots feel like they're flying with the squelch on because of the static and interference we get."
Shea said, "we've got such a proliferation of electro-communication devices and information technology devices out there in the battle space, that it's kind of run away from us. We're creating problems that we would have never imagined perhaps as recently as five or six years ago."
Buchanan called for a joint electronic warfare command center. "We need to have a cell that is in a position to be able to determine when and where I'm going to jam, how I'm going to affect the electronic medium and when I want to make sure I don't."
The joint command is beginning to address the need to manage spectrum, Shea said, and members of his staff are working fulltime on the problem.
Meanwhile, Wittstruck said commanders must carefully consider where and when to use jammers. "It's not good enough to say I'm going to detonate an IED . sitting on a terrorist's cell table when they're sitting in the middle of a civilian apartment complex," he said. "You don't win too many hearts and minds when someone comes home from scratching a living in Iraq and finds that their house is gone."
There are risks that a jammer will unintentionally set off a makeshift bomb while friendly forces are nearby attempting to diffuse another, Buchanan said. Still, "we would rather take the initiative away from the enemy and run the off-chance risk that we might be at the wrong place at the wrong time."
And just as jamming technology was making an impact, insurgents last summer began using infrared detonation devices, Wittstruck said. These triggers can be built from commercially available items, such as garage-door openers and burglar alarms, and don't operate in the radio spectrum where jammers are employed. The joint IED task force is seeking proposals on ways to defeat infrared threats.
Keith Masback, assistant deputy director for source operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said such innovations point toward an adaptive enemy.
"They're deceiving our sensors. They're fooling our analysis, and they're challenging us in every front. Whether it's IEDs, or tactics, techniques and procedures, we must be learners, and we must be adaptive," he said.