By Sandra I. Erwin
Through five combat tours in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Maj. John Troxell has been alarmed by the rapid improvements in insurgents’ bomb-making skills. The U.S. military, meanwhile, has been playing catch-up.
Troops will leave Afghanistan in 2014, but insurgent bombs will follow American forces to other parts of the world, said Troxell, command sergeant major of the Army I Corps and Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash.
“The skills are getting out to other theaters,” he said last week at the Association of the U.S. Army annual conference in Washington, D.C.. “Commanders fear that this technology is coming to other countries as we pivot to the Pacific.”
The Pentagon has provided an arsenal of counter-bomb equipment to deployed troops over the past decade, including bomb jammers, robotic detectors and heavily armored vehicles that can survive blasts.
But during that time, the “enemy has gotten more sophisticated,” Troxell said. The IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are getting better and cheaper, he added.
In just a few years, insurgents in Afghanistan were able to ramp up production of IEDs at an astounding pace, said Command Sgt. Maj. James Carabello, of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Ga.
During one recent combat tour in Afghanistan, his brigade alone found 1,200 IEDs, Carabello said.
“Do the math,” he said. “That fight is not going away.”
Another huge drawback for U.S. troops is that their counter-IED equipment requires a truckload of batteries. Keeping adequate supplies of batteries not only weighs soldiers down with extra cargo but also provides free raw material to the enemy. The drained batteries that soldiers leave behind is “how the enemy sources a lot of its IEDs,” said Carabello. For a three-day patrol a platoon usually carries 500 pounds of batteries to power radios, night vision goggles, lasers and counter-IED equipment.
Bomb jammers are extremely valuable, he said, but the electronic signals sometimes interfere with radio communications. “The counter-IED systems my soldiers were issued are great systems, but I couldn't operate the equipment and listen to the enemy at the same time without signals conflicting with each other.”
One clear sign that the U.S. military expects to continue to be targeted by IEDs in future wars is a recent decision by the Army and Marine Corps to keep its large inventory of mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) trucks.
Both services had planned to shed a portion of the current fleet of 27,740 trucks. There are currently seven MRAP variants that are made by six different manufacturers. The services plan to consolidate the fleet into fewer models, but will still keep a significant number of trucks in service.
Army officials said they plan to keep at least half of the service’s 20,000 MRAP fleet in service, and store the rest in war-equipment stocks.
The MRAP fleet has been under constant review, said Kevin Fahey, the Army’s program executive officer for tactical vehicles.
“It’s a difficult portfolio because there are so many,” he told reporters at AUSA.
He said the services are trying to balance the cost of maintaining these expensive trucks against the risk of not having a sufficient supply of bomb-resistant vehicles for a future conflict.
A new joint light tactical truck that the Army and Marine Corps plan to buy to replace aging Humvees is being designed to be as survivable, or more, as the MRAP, said Col. David Bassett Army deputy program executive officer for combat support.
Three competing contractor teams are building truck prototypes with removable armor kits so commanders have the option of adding and taking off protective shielding, as needed. All vehicles, however, have to provide a kit for underbody protection, precisely because they will likely be driving on IED-infested roads.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army