Soldiers, Marines Team Up in ‘Trailblazer’ Patrols

By David Axe

Al Taqaddum Air Base, Western Iraq — The Army and Marine Corps in Iraq are pressing new and adapted systems into service to combat improvised explosive devices. Many of these innovations empower soldiers to tackle the threat without always relying on bomb-disposal specialists.

Armored vehicles originally designed to clear mines are used to sweep roads of bombs. Patrols travel inside the protective bubbles of sophisticated radio jammers that intercept the signals that detonate explosives. And engineers are refining the use of small ground robots to identify and destroy IEDs.

Perhaps the most visible of the ground forces’ counter-IED initiatives is the adoption of new vehicles that form the Army and Marines’ “trailblazer” forces. Units from both services, usually engineer battalions, are using Buffalo, Husky, Meerkat and Cougar mine-clearing vehicles to daily sweep Iraq’s supply routes.

The Buffalo, a six-wheeled modified Mack truck manufactured by Technical Solutions Group of North Charleston, S.C., debuted in Iraq in 2005. The massive vehicles seat two operators and sport a clawed robotic arm on the front left quarter that can extend to probe and spread suspicious debris. The Army has bought more than 50 Buffaloes since 2001. The Marines ordered their first four in September 2005.

The Meerkat and the slightly larger Husky, both built by South African company RSD, are spindly four-wheeled tractors fielded in the late 1990s to tow mine-clearing trailers. In Iraq, they’re equipped with x-ray scanners that can detect the metal components of IEDs. Both feature an armored cab for the single operator. In contrast to the Buffalo, which is armored to resist all but the largest bombs, the Meerkat and the Husky are designed to blow apart, essentially rolling with a blast instead of resisting it. The Army purchased its first 10 Meerkats in 1998.

The Cougar is a tall four-wheeled armored truck that is manufactured by Force Protection Inc. In trailblazer units, Cougar is a tougher replacement for up-armored Humvees. Its crew of three is armed with a turret-mounted .50-caliber machine gun to protect the Buffaloes, Meerkats and Huskies. Some Cougars are equipped with Warlock radio jammers to intercept the signals that detonate IEDs. The Army ordered 148 Cougars in February 2005. The Marines also have purchased the vehicle.

Trailblazer patrols typically include one Buffalo leading the way and four vehicles for security — usually a combination of Cougars and up-armored Humvees. At least one Warlock-equipped vehicle will stick to the middle of the patrol to keep the others in its protective bubble. The patrol commander’s vehicle is equipped with a blue-force tracker network terminal for navigation and secure communication with the command post. Meerkats and Huskies can be included if there is reason to suspect buried IEDs that require the services of the vehicles’ x-ray scanners.

When the Buffalo crew in a patrol sees signs of a potential IED — debris, disturbed earth or a suspicious container — it signals the rest of the patrol to pull security and then it slowly approaches the suspected bomb, pokes at it with the robotic claw until it is destroyed, or proved to be something innocuous or explodes. If the IED is indeed real and doesn’t explode, the trailblazers will pull back.

“We’ll sweep the area, make sure there are no secondaries, secure the area then call in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD)” units, said Staff Sgt. Colin Thompson, a trailblazer with Alpha Co., 164th Engineer Battalion, a unit of the North Dakota National Guard that has been deployed to Logistics Support Area Anaconda in north-central Iraq since November.

EOD teams are equipped with many of the same vehicles as the trailblazers, but also boast ground robots and special training for defusing or destroying IEDs.

The 164th conducts daily patrols on the major supply routes around Anaconda. They have encountered dozens of IEDs — several exploding near the unit’s Buffaloes, which left one with black scars on its nose. “Our vehicles take good care of us,” Thompson said, recalling a recent mission in which a 164th patrol was hit by three IEDs but suffered no casualties.

A shortage of Cougars means trailblazers continue to use up-armored Humvees, but some say the Humvees aren’t heavy enough to keep crews safe against IEDs.

The Marine Corps, which only recently bought its first mine-resistant vehicles, has had similar experiences. A trailblazer team with Buffaloes and Cougars, based at Al Taqaddum air base in Western Iraq, was hit by an IED in January. A Cougar was demolished and four of its five crew were injured, but no one died. Personnel at Al Taqaddum say the blast would have killed everyone inside an up-armored Humvee.

While it’s standard procedure for the trailblazers to wait for an EOD team to defuse or destroy the IEDs they discover, other engineer units in Iraq have been using small ground robots to clear IEDs when bomb disposal units are unavailable.

One such robot is the multi-function agile remote-controlled robot, or MARCbot for short. The $8,000 robot was issued to Iraq-bound units by the Defense Department’s Rapid Equipping Force beginning in late 2004. MARCbot essentially is a beefed-up four-wheel remote-controlled toy with an extendable arm.

In January 2005, soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division’s 82nd Engineer Battalion found dozens of IEDs around polling places near the Sunni city of Baqubah. With no time to call in EOD before the polls were due to close, the engineers used their MARCbot to disable several IEDs.

First Cavalry Division Staff Sgt. Algie Smith, who helped test the MARCbot, said the robot empowers non-EOD soldiers.

“We could be stopped on the road for four or five hours for an IED sweep, waiting for EOD to determine if something is an IED or isn’t,” Algie Smith told the Fort Hood Herald newspaper. The MARCbot “by no means makes you an EOD expert, but at least you can determine what it is.”

Soldiers’ use of robots to destroy IEDs is consistent with many units’ tendency to deal with small or suspected IEDs on their own, rather than burdening the overworked EOD teams. On a patrol with Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment outside the city on Balad in mid-February, an M-2 Bradley crew rolled up on a suspicious mound of debris and fired at it with the Bradley’s 7.62-millimeter coaxial machine gun until it was satisfied that any bomb inside was destroyed.

The top-secret Warlock, too, is helping counter the devices. These days, most combat patrols in Iraq include at least one Warlock jammer. The system comes in several versions: the compact Humvee-mounted Combo and the man-portable Blue model that is attached to a soldier’s vest. Warlock combo, the version the trailblazers use, replaces the original large, unwieldy Warlocks that filled up most of a Humvee.

Details about Warlock’s capabilities — and precise tactics for its use — are classified. But 1st Lt. Derek Austin confirms that the system works. “We think it works,” he corrected himself. After all, he said, the only evidence he has is that his patrols haven’t been blown up. He describes IEDs exploding just as they passed outside the range of the unit’s Warlocks, perhaps indicating that insurgents were trying to detonate the devices as patrols passed — and that Warlock temporarily blocked the signals.

Airborne jamming also plays a major role in the anti-IED campaign. Electronic warfare jets, first fielded in the 1970s to jam Soviet radars, launch daily from Al Asad airbase in western Iraq, to fly over the region’s supply routes—using their sophisticated jammers to block the signals that detonate IEDs.

The Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler’s communications jammer can intercept radio signals and prevent them from reaching detonators.

From the Al Asad base, F/A-18D Hornet crews fly missions to spot IEDs, sometimes even catching insurgents in the act.

The Hornet’s advanced tactical airborne reconnaissance system, a bank of high-fidelity film cameras that replaces the jet’s standard 20-millimeter cannon, traditionally has been used for gathering targeting imagery. By placing imagery of the same area from two different days side by side, analysts can spot changes in the landscape, perhaps indicating the location of a new IED. Sgt. Elizabeth Zakar, an analyst at Al Asad, said Marines are fielding a new workstation that speeds up this process.

Targeting pods carried by Hornets and AV-8B Harrier II jump jets include infrared and daylight cameras that enable round-the-clock surveillance for insurgents planting IEDs.

Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 pilot Capt. Christine Vallely said that on one mission over the city of Ramadi, she used the targeting pod to catch insurgents in the act of burying an IED. Her jet had no gun, and had expended all its ordnance, so her wingman dove to shoot his gun. But he missed and the insurgents fled.

Other airborne assets pressed into counter-IED efforts in Iraq include Predator Air Force drones and Army Ravens. Air Force Compass Call airborne jammers duplicate the Prowler’s anti-IED role, but on a larger scale.

In March 2005, a patrol from the 25th Infantry Division, near the northern city of Mosul had its communications briefly wiped out when a Compass Call passed overhead. All radio signals in the area were jammed.

The U.S. military’s ability to counter many IEDs, particularly radio-detonated ones, have forced insurgents to adapt. In the past year, soldiers have reported a spike in infrared- and pressure-detonated IEDs that are invulnerable to Warlock. New, shape-charged IEDs are capable of penetrating even the Buffalo’s thick armor.

The result is that the Defense Department’s campaign against IEDs will be an ongoing one. The Pentagon’s 2007 $50-billion supplemental budget request includes $2 billion for counter-IED equipment.

IEDs have become the ultimate “asymmetric” weapon. According to Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Joint Defeat IED Organization, the average cost of an IED is $25 to $30, while the countermeasures range from $1,300 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.