What if roadside bombs lurked on a street near you?
While nobody really wants to contemplate that scenario, maybe defense contractors and government scientists should, suggests Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Douglas Stone.
Maybe, if those deadly improvised explosive devices that haunt U.S. troops in Iraq were aimed at school buses or commuters traveling on American roads, someone would have to come up with better ways to foil the attacks, Stone tells a roomful of contractors and scientists attending a conference in Washington, D.C.
Stone, who heads one of the Marine Corps’ largest training organizations, conveys the frustration that military commanders experience in the war zone, where inescapably, almost on a daily basis, troops are killed and maimed by hidden explosives.
“I want to know the IED is there before we step on the IED,” Stone tells the audience. If roadside bombs went off in your hometown, “I want you to think what you would want to know before your kids on a school bus hit an IED … That’s the answer I want.”
More than three years after roadside bombs became the weapon of choice against U.S. troops in Iraq, the code for defeating them has yet to be cracked. Vehicles and troops have been weighed down with armor, and the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars fielding bomb-disarming robots, frequency jammers and other technologies. But the casualties continue to mount.
“Nobody knows the right answer,” says a military officer who works closely with U.S. commanders.
Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East, called for a “Manhattan Project” to conquer IEDs. In response, the Defense Department two years ago created the “joint IED defeat organization,” led by a one-star general. No major breakthroughs were achieved, so the Pentagon upgraded the agency, boosted its budget to more than $3 billion, and appointed a four-star general to lead it. But so far, there is little evidence that the additional money and stars have been enough to trump IEDs.
The United States, by far the most innovative culture in the world, is being out-innovated. Many experts and military leaders have acknowledged so, and wonder what can be done.
One obstacle often cited for slowing down progress is the plodding bureaucracy. The joint IED organization, critics contend, is physically too far removed from the war.
“Why isn’t the primary technical effort in Kuwait or Iraq?” asks the officer, who requested that he not be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject. The Pentagon is a strong proponent of “reach-back,” which is the ability to operate from bases in the United States and communicate with the front lines via satellite. That may be a productive way of doing business in some areas, but may not fit the bill for a tough job such as preventing IED attacks.
Scientists and contractors stateside burn the midnight oil and are doing some impressive work, but being at home, the officer says, “You don’t feel the pressure, you have all the distractions of home life … You are not in the war the same way as when you are in the theater of operations.
“If our enemies are working there, why can’t we work there?” he asks. Service members don’t have that choice. “I don’t know how many scientists and engineers are willing to go there … I’m sure we can get patriotic civilians who want to work there.”
Meantime, military agencies currently developing technologies to help locate and neutralize IEDs are grappling with their own dilemmas. One is how to shed business habits that suited the military’s needs during the cold war but now hinder its ability to compete with enemies that change their tactics every time they sense that U.S. forces may have a leg up on them.
Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. William E. Landay equates the situation to an accelerated arms race that will be won by whoever can compel the other guy to drop out. That approach has paid off for the United States in the past, he says. Because the nation built such a sophisticated military force, adversaries gave up trying to keep up, and they resorted to irregular warfare.
“Sometimes we forget that we’ve done that very well,” says Landay. “The enemy can be innovative, and at some point you can so out-innovate him that he gives up and goes somewhere else.”
Theoretically, that could happen, but it is not likely.
“I wish I knew where there is a magic bullet,” Landay says.
He is optimistic, however, that traditional military research is adapting fairly quickly, and will yield some fruitful results.
Scientists and engineers working on the IED effort are up against clever enemies who put together horrific weapons — designed to blow up military humvees as well as commercial airlines — with household materials and cheap electronics. “We just have to make sure that in our process we are thinking at those same kinds of speeds as they do,” Landay says.
The anonymous military officer offers that the real tragedy in all this is that IEDs could have been made a thing of the past if the United States had become serious about them when the Marine barracks in Lebanon were bombed 23 years ago. “How much further would we be if we had started in 1983?”
Please email your comments to SErwin@ndia.org