FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, the new director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, wants contractors, small businesses, or inventors working in their basements to come forward with any devices or thoughts on how to defeat roadside bombs.
“We certainly welcome anybody who thinks they have a good idea,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the Association of the U.S. Army winter symposium. “We will certainly look at every one of them. We don’t want to place any obstacles against an idea. We will look at almost anything and provide an assessment back.”
As the Afghan surge continues, Oates and JIEDDO have an all new problem set.IEDs, which were a scourge in Iraq, are now taking a high toll in Afghanistan.
They are cruder than what Iraqi insurgents used, but are proving to be just as deadly, he said. These so-called “pressure plate explosives” are made from two thin pieces of wood that when stepped on, come together and trigger an explosion. Like landmines, they are “victim activated,” meaning a vehicle must drive over them or a person must step on them to set the devices off. Along with U.S. forces, Afghan men, women and children are stepping on the devices, which is rarely reported in the press.
“It’s about the crudest form of detonation capability you can find,” he said.
The explosives are not unused artillery shells, as they were in Iraq, but made from common fertilizers. Ultimately, this and the low metallic content makes the Afghan version of the IED difficult to detect.
The detection piece of JIEDDO’s mission has been a major shortcoming of the organization since it was formed in 2006 to tackle the problem, Oates said. It has not received a good “return on the investment” it has made on technologies designed to find hidden bombs.
That’s one reason why he wants to change the perception of JIEDDO as a “shadowy” organization. “I’m trying to make sure as many people as possible know what our requirements are so we can get more people working on the problem,” he told National Defense in an interview. “Technology wise, I think we can extend our outreach to academia and industry. We are working on that to make sure more people are aware of our problem set. I think there is plenty of motivation to solve the problem, that’s not the issue.”
JIEDDO has two open broad area announcements that are indeed written as “broadly” as possible. Along with a request for help detecting pressure plate explosives, it asks for “any technology, information, or recommendation that would enhance existing counter-IED systems.”
Oates said he is aware that small businesses or individuals, unlike major contractors, may not know the ins and outs of writing papers explaining their ideas. Those with proposals can call, write or go through the JIEDDO web portal to send them in.
During the interview, Oates asked a staffer how long it takes for the organization to respond to inquiries. He bristled when told that automated email responses acknowledging receipt come within 24 hours. “Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that we’re not meeting that standard,” he said.
“Small businesses and individuals can’t figure out how to get a hold of us. They don’t get a response. They are looking for something a little more in depth. I am sensitive to that criticism, we want people to talk to us and approach us. So we have to provide them feedback,” he said.
It takes some time to do due diligence and assess whether the idea or technology has potential, he continued. If it looks as if it has merit, there is a system to conduct rapid testing. It doesn’t have to be a new technology, he stressed. Ideas — new tactics, techniques or procedures — are welcome as well.
After initial testing, Oates makes a decision on whether to try out an idea or device in theater. “It’s not as difficult a process as the mainline acquisition programs,” he said.
JIEDDO has other shortcomings that Oates spoke candidly about.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report last fall that the organization does not have a good handle on the status of all its projects, as well as the counter-IED programs of the four services. This lack of “visibility” over all of the myriad programs could lead to duplicative efforts and waste, GAO said.
As for JIEDDO, “We’re cleaning up our own house first and we’re in pretty good shape right now,” he said. It has a new database, the JIEDDO enterprise management system, or JEMS, that shows the status of each program. As of yet, that has not been extended to the services and their many IED programs.
“It’s a valid criticism that we don’t have visibility on every initiative across all the services. That’s an extremely tall order. … I can’t promise that that can be accomplished in the short term. But we are moving on that,” he added.
Journalists, congressional staffers and Defense Department officials are all invited to come to the JIEDDO office and see the JEMS system, he said.
“At the end of the day, when someone in Congress says ‘what did we get for $17 billion?’ We have a responsibility to respond to that. And I don’t want that to be a mystery to anybody.
“We’re not shadowy at all, but sometimes it’s hard to see into our organization so we’re all about trying to provide transparency.”
A recent decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to assign Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter and Director of Operations for the Joint Staff Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Paxton to lead a new effort on the Afghanistan IED problem has been interpreted as a knock against JIEDDO. The Carter-Paxton team was labeled a C-SIG, or “cross-cutting, senior-level group.”
Carter said in January that the group was not replacing JIEDDO.
“The secretary asked me and the director of operations for the Joint Staff to be his ‘piston,’ in his words, his ‘integrator and accelerator’ on the counter-IED problem,” Carter said. He also said that generic counter-IED training is not specific enough for Afghanistan.
Oates said that the C-SIG so far has been seeking to “harmonize” the Afghanistan efforts of JIEDDO, the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicle Task Force and the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force. It has been asking the top commanders about their immediate counter-IED needs, and seeking to rush new technologies there.
“Carter, because where he is located in the hierarchy, is able to direct immediate attention to these things,” Oates said.
Some of the items Central Command leaders want to see are: improved surveillance assets — including fixed and remote cameras; better metal detectors; new equipment for explosive ordnance disposal and electronic warfare personnel; and additional training for coalition partners, Oates said.
JIEDDO Command Sgt. Major Todd Burnett said that training has not kept up with the new demands of the surge.
“We have not moved forward for the current fight,” Burnett told reporters. “Complacency is something that is very real.”
The increased size of the explosives is “very alarming,” he added. “You have to educate people and give them an understanding of how big these bombs are.”
Only a small percentage of the Army has ever been to Afghanistan, he said.
“Many of the people we’re bringing in now are very familiar with Iraq, but not as familiar with Afghanistan. You got to break the trend and have people think in a different mindset,” Burnett said.