Defeating IEDs: Will a management shakeup work this time?
But Gates still does not believe the Pentagon is doing enough to help counter the enemy’s weapon of choice, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In Iraq, U.S. forces have seen a steady decline in the IED-related death toll -- from 849 fatalities in 2004 down to 149 in 2009. But what troubles Gates is the trend in Afghanistan, which is going in the other direction -- 317 U.S. deaths in 2009, compared to 155 in 2008, according to iCasualties.org.
Can another management shakeup help to turn things around?
Gates in November named a new counter-IED team and instructed it to find ways to expedite bomb-defeating programs. He assigned Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter and Director of Operations for the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. John Paxton, USMC, to lead the group.
Observers immediately wondered what this meant for the future of JIEDDO, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which Gates’ predecessor Donald Rumsfeld created in 2006 precisely to do what this new group is supposed to do.
The Carter-Paxton team was labeled a C-SIG, or “cross-cutting, senior-level group.”
A Carter spokesman said C-SIG “is not replacing JIEDDO.”
Speaking at a conference last week in Washington, D.C., Carter described the new counter-IED effort as a necessary “shot in the arm” to energize the bureaucracy that is already in place. “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.
Gates regards the anti-IED fight as inseparable from the larger campaign in Afghanistan, Carter said at the conference, which was organized by the international security studies program of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
IEDs are a “unique danger to the whole operation,” said Carter. “They restrict our mobility” outside protected bases, “which is the whole point of us being there in the first place.”
Roadside bomb attacks, in addition to being troop killers, are morally debilitating to the entire mission, he noted. “They dispirit our people, our allies, the Afghan people. … The secretary believes that IEDs are a strategic threat to our success there.”
Other organizations already exist to deal with this problem, but “like every thing else in Washington, after a time, everything needs a shot in the arm,” Carter said.
His group will seek to rush to the field technologies that can help detect IEDs, such as surveillance balloons. “You don’t need fancy airplanes” in every forward operating base, he said. Units “just need to see what's out there.”
Another goal is to improve training. The Pentagon already has in place dozens oftraining programs, including advancedsimulators and liveexercises, to prepare troops for the IED-infested battlefield. But Carter said his group will seek to tailor the training specifically for Afghanistan. Training can’t be generic, he said. It has to be “relevant” to the particular area of Afghanistan where a unit will be deployed, he said. “They’re not training for Iraq.”
These programs have to be up and running in “months, not years,” according to a Defense Department document. “The success of the group will be measured over a similar time horizon.” The C-SIG is “not designed to add another layer of bureaucracy to current C-IED efforts,” the document said.
As to whether JIEDDO will survive in the long term, that will depend on whether it can show progress in defeating IEDs. Gates already has demonstrated that he is not afraid of canceling programs, especially if they don’t perform.