Hundreds of surveillance aircraft, bomb-detection robots, a battalion-size cadre of analysts and advanced data-mining software are being shipped to Afghanistan as part of the U.S. campaign to counter the widespread use of roadside bombs against American and allied troops.
But in the war against improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, no weapon is as effective as well-trained soldiers and their bomb-sniffing dogs, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization.
“Dogs are the best detectors,” Oates said at an Oct. 20 news conference at JIEDDO headquarters in Arlington, Va.When dogs are teamed with small dismounted teams of U.S. and Afghan troops, they are capable of detecting 80 percent of IEDs, he said. “That combo presents the best detection system we currently have.”
Since it was created in 2006, JIEDDO has eagerly sought out every possible technological tool it could find in government, industry and academia to locate and remotely detonate IEDs, which have caused the majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far it has spent nearly $17 billion on new technologies and training programs.
But no matter how many new devices have been poured into war zones, the U.S. military’s ability to detect IEDs has not improved. Only half of buried explosives typically are found before they are detonated, Oates said. “Since 2004 both in Iraq and Afghanistan the detection rate has hung stubbornly at around 50 percent,” he said. “We find 50 percent of the IEDs used against us, and 50 percent detonate.” Of those that do ignite, about 35 percent don’t result in U.S. casualties either because troops travel in heavily armored vehicles or sometimes because the IEDs are duds.
Detection is a “significant challenge,” said Oates. So rather than continuing a potentially futile search for a silver bullet, JIEDDO is now recommending other, non-technological, ways to combat IEDs, such as improved training and deeper understanding of the local sociopolitical landscape where IED planters are created much faster than U.S. forces can find them.
“Political reconciliation is a factor” in combating IEDs, Oates said. “There has to be a measure of political reconciliation at every level as it impacts the IED fight.” This is nothing new to anyone who’s been on the ground practicing this war, said Oates. “If you don’t work to mitigate the recruitment and enticement for emplacement of IEDs you will spend an enormous amount of blood and treasure fighting the IEDs. It is not a winnable project to kill emplacers, or to just uncover the devices.”
As long as U.S. forces fail to gain the trust of the local population, IEDs will continue to be a scourge, he said. Finding buried explosives in Afghanistan is even tougher than it ever was in Iraq because the bombs contain little metal content and mostly consist of ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride fertilizers, which are relatively easy to obtain from Pakistan. Although the Pakistani government has banned exports of these fertilizers, they still flow relatively unimpeded across the border, Oates said.
“Low metallic devices are the most difficult to detect,” he said. JIEDDO is deploying ground-penetrating radar and multispectral sensors to help locate these low-tech bombs, but none of the technologies has been as successful as scientists had hoped.
Training and educating soldiers is critical in the fight against IEDs, Oates said. It is also the “most underappreciated” piece of JIEDDO’s portfolio. U.S. troops from the get-go face a huge disadvantage in this war because they lack knowledge of local language and culture, Oates said. They also “carry enormous ignorance” about what motivates locals to collaborate with the Taliban or al-Qaida and help them build and bury IEDs. “This is a complicated challenge for us,” Oates said.
Although technology has not lived up to expectations, the flow of new sensors and unmanned aircraft into the theater continues, and likely will accelerate in the coming months.
The Pentagon will be hiring 800 new analysts over the next year to assist in data processing in Afghanistan.
The rapid proliferation of data collectors — primarily surveillance aircraft equipped with advanced sensors — has created an information glut as well as congestion at U.S. military bases that cannot accommodate the massive inflow of hardware. Marine Corps Col. Anne Weinberg, chief of the operations division for the Defense Department’s ISR (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance) task force, said the Pentagon has spent nearly $7 billion on ISR systems for Afghanistan, “but very little of that has been spent on what you’re going to do with that data.”
According to Weinberg, 7,000 personnel — some in Afghanistan but most in the United States — are supporting intelligence gathering and analysis. Speaking at an industry conference earlier this month, Weinberg said “the theater says they need more ISR. But they can’t absorb more ISR. They don’t have the ramp space, they don’t have the logistics to absorb all the platforms we’ve been able to get in over the past two years.”
Oates offered a similar assessment. In Afghanistan, he said, larger sites are needed “in order to provide ramp space and launch capability for airborne platforms.” Another difficulty is integrating the data from both air and ground sensors. The situation is likely to improve as more analysts arrive, Oates said.
Regardless of the data overload, the Pentagon will continue to deploy more sensors, particularly unmanned aircraft that stream full motion video to the ground, said Oates. These are “enormously useful to see the roads ahead of you and the triggermen on your flanks.”
For Army company commanders, the plan is to acquire new unmanned helicopters that can fly six- to eight-hours missions in mountainous terrain and can carry larger sensors than current small-unit UAVs.
Unlike aerial surveillance systems, so-called “unattended ground sensors” have proved to be a bust in counter-IED efforts, said Oates. “They have been of limited utility in Iraq and Afghanistan for obvious reasons: The population is able to detect them almost as rapidly as we can put them in.”