The weapons of choice of U.S. enemies, improvised explosive devices, are like deadly viruses that mutate in reaction to vaccines. They cannot be wiped out, only temporarily thwarted.
“I liken the IED a little bit to malaria,” said the Army’s Chief Scientist Scott Fish. “We have a lot of solutions to malaria. But it adapts and evolves over time.”
Over the past decade of war, every time the U.S. military has come up with new ways to block radio signals that detonate bombs, or new techniques to detect and destroy IEDs, insurgents have struck back with deadlier means to blow up armored vehicles and its occupants.
The Pentagon’s science and technology community has not exactly given up on finding new anti-IED weapons, but officials have acknowledged that they will forever play catch-up. “IEDs are not going to go away,” Fish said at a recent conference of military reporters. “They are here to stay,” he said. “Our enemies will continue to evolve IEDs.”
So far the most successful antidote has been heavily armored trucks that can withstand large explosions and protect crews. Because IEDs are easy to build and bury, and tough to find, armor remains the best available countermeasure.
The reasoning is that if U.S. troops and equipment can be made more survivable, enemy fighters will have to make progressively larger bombs to kills their targets. Larger explosives would be deadlier, but easier to discover, and would increase the odds that U.S. forces could dodge them.
“We’re looking at how to create systems to survive large IED attacks,” Fish said. “The larger ones create a lot of damage but are easier to find, [compared to] small IEDs which are a bit of a test.”
In Afghanistan, bomb attacks have reached historically high levels, according to Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization. In June and July alone, JIEDDO recorded 1,600 “events,” he told an industry conference.
Barbero said he expects that IEDs will remain a scourge for decades.
IED casualties were partially contained in recent years as troops in war zones traded in their light-skinned Humvees for the much heavier mine-resistant ambush protected, or MRAP, trucks.
But roads in Afghanistan are so mine-infested that driving trucks can become a game of Russian roulette. Route-clearance experts, explosive ordnance disposal units, are in such high demand that they cannot possibly clear every road. Even when an EOD unit is available, it can take days just to make a single road stretch passable for military convoys. And every time an EOD team shows up to clear a passageway, enemy fighters in hideouts have ample time to observe their techniques and figure out how to foil them the next time.
About a year ago in Afghanistan, commanders decided that they wanted more troops to get out of their vehicles and patrol on foot.
This shift in strategy created new demands for counter-IED systems for dismounted soldiers and Marines, said Matthew Way, a program manager at JIEDDO who specializes in robotic technologies.
Since it was created in 2004, JIEDDO has focused its efforts and nearly $3 billion annual budget on deploying electronic jammers and other bomb-foiling technologies that helped reduce casualties in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan — where a 1-mile road might have 100 IEDs — has spurred a demand for new counter-IED systems, such as lightweight robots and driverless trucks, Way said in an interview.
Commanders in Afghanistan have asked JIEDDO for help as they have found it increasingly tougher to do their jobs in an environment where any road can be a deathtrap and EOD clearance teams are scarce. One solution that is being considered is to offer the tools that typically are only used by EOD teams — such as robots and line charges — to Army and Marine Corps infantry units. Infantry troops obviously would not have the skills that EOD units acquire from years of training in finding and disarming bombs, but commanders believe that having the additional counter-IED equipment would help, Way said.
JIEDDO received a request in June for ultra-light robots that soldiers can carry with one hand. The robots would approach a suspected IED and keep humans at a safe standoff distance. Standard EOD equipment includes the Talon and Packbot robots, which each team carries in
their armored vehicles. But at 100 pounds and 25 pounds, respectively, these robots are too heavy for infantry use. And there aren’t enough quantities of them around to keep up with the proliferation of IEDs, Way said.
Current robots, he said, are “just too large to be carried. That’s really the challenge right now.”
The Army also purchased the SUG-V robot for dismounted troops. But it is also too heavy at 34 pounds.
JIEDDO tested six commercially available robots and selected three that fit into the 5-pound weight requirement — the Macro USA Armadillo, the QinetiQ Dragon Runner and the iRobot FirstLook.
“We’re sending 100 of each to theater” to be tested by troops, Way said. The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force also is buying 385 lightweight Recon Scout XT robots that will be evaluated alongside the other three. By Spring 2012, JIEDDO will decide whether these robots are satisfactory or whether it should seek other options.
“We need to put more robots in the hands of more soldiers and Marines across EOD and infantry,” Way said.
Technology, however, cannot substitute for skilled EOD operators. A robot cannot detect an IED but can help poke around in an area that is considered suspicious.
“Nobody in JIEDDO is saying that these are silver bullets,” Way said.
The limits of technology in the hunt for IEDs and the futility of some counter-IED efforts are dominant subjects of a new 10-part documentary series, “Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan,” that recently aired on the G4 network. The series follows a Navy explosive ordnance disposal eight-man platoon over a five-month deployment, and offers a glimpse into the complex and dangerous work of finding and destroying IEDs.
The documentary also illustrates the difficulties of operating robots.
“It takes time and experience to get proficient at it,” said Ed Godere, senior vice president of unmanned systems at QinetiQ North America, which manufacturers the Talon and other robots.
“They are learning on the job in many cases,” he said.
EOD technicians usually don’t learn how to drive a robot until they get on the ground. Most of their training focuses on understanding different initiators and explosives, knowing the blast radius of various explosives and how to maintain standoff range accordingly.
Godere said his company is working on several engineering improvements to the Talons and other robots. Troops in the field have asked for robot arms that can better manipulate objects, lift heavier loads of explosives and offer improved radio communications range.
No technology so far has been able to replace human eyes and brains.
The hardest part is finding the IEDs, and robots cannot do that. EOD technicians might visually identify an explosive, or they rely on handheld metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar that is installed on their Husky armored vehicles. Finding buried bombs, even with the Husky, is painstaking and time consuming.
The Army and Air Force also use airborne sensors such as multispectral imaging systems to search for disturbed earth patterns that could signal the presence of IEDs.
Robots’ most valued trait is that they keep operators safe inside the vehicle. Without robots, technicians have to wear bomb suits and get close to the IED. A Talon, for instance, can drop 10 pounds of C4 explosive on a suspected IED to detonate it.
“With the size of the charges they are seeing — IEDs made with 155mm and 105mm shells — the bomb suit is not going to survive if the IED goes off,” Godere said.
None of the existing technology, to the chagrin of U.S. commanders, has been able to crack the toughest nut of the war on IEDs: bombs made of calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Lacking enough metal content to make them detectable by traditional sensors, these explosives have been the bane of U.S. forces. Soldiers have dubbed these large bombs “Buffalo killers” because they can destroy a heavily armored Buffalo mine-protected truck. Barbero has estimated that the majority of IEDs in Afghanistan are made from ammonium nitrate.
Godere said there is a project under way to install ground-penetrating radar devices on the Talon robots, but none of that new technology would help pinpoint the location of fertilizer bombs.
In the absence of any big breakthroughs in IED detection, JIEDDO’s next move is to test the use of decoy robotic trucks, nicknamed “ghost ships,” in military convoys.
Ghost ship kits that allow trucks to be remotely operated can be installed on Humvees or MRAP vehicles, said Way. They are “very low cost, but also very basic.” Soldiers have been testing these systems at the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The idea is that insurgents could be fooled into blowing up the unoccupied vehicles. “The concept is outstanding,” Army Spc. Jose Garcia told a National Defense reporter last month. According to Pfc. Antonio DeAnda, “It would be a great advantage [against] the IED threat to put a remotely operated vehicle as the lead vehicle.”
Way said ghost ship prototypes will be evaluated in Afghanistan in 2012.
Another piece of equipment that JIEDDO expects to provide to infantry units is a prefabricated line charge that typically is only given to EOD teams. The line charges would allow soldiers to detonate buried mines and clear a path relatively quickly, Way said. “We’re looking to give more tools that so far have been unique to the EOD world. … We are working on systems for infantry so they’re not always waiting for EOD.”
Fish, the Army’s top scientist, said the Defense Department plans to persist in the development of counter-IED technologies. “This will be a continuous activity for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.
An industry study by Visiongain estimated that global expenditures of counter-IED systems in 2011 reached $6.4 billion.