Defeating IEDs Is Much Like Fighting the Mob
This isn’t easy and will require advanced data-mining technologies that will speed up the analysis of intelligence related to improvised explosive devices and those who use them, Larkin said this week at a conference hosted by the Northern Virginia chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
He cautioned that there is no such thing as a network that exists exclusively to make and deploy these bombs. They are hybrid groups that will blow things up in the middle of the roadway today, kidnap people tomorrow, shoot rockets the next day and then sell fruit at the bazaar the day after that, said Larkin, who used to investigate organized crime for the federal government.
Improvised explosives have accounted for the majority of military and civilian deaths in Afghanistan. In the 24 hours leading up to Larkin’s speech, seven more American troops there had been killed by IEDs.
The United States has spent billions of dollars trying to stop the effectiveness of cheap and easy-to-use roadside bombs. JIEDDO has focused on catching the problem “left of the boom,” or before the bomb explodes — gathering intelligence, tracking down the networks of people responsible, and finding and dismantling the devices.
JIEDDO Director Lt. Gen. Michael Oates all but predicted that these efforts, augmented with a surge of gear and specialists into Afghanistan, will lead to a drop in incidents by the end of the year. The turning of the tide must occur quickly, considering that the use of IEDs has more than doubled since just May of last year.
The problem gets harder to solve when the people using the weapons are willing to strap the bomb to their bodies and blow themselves up too.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Larkin said.
Between May 2009 and May 2010, the number of IEDs found and cleared increased by 118 percent. During that same time period, though, effective attacks rose 205 percent. In other words, the devices, whether they detonate or not, are becoming more common.
Between 750 and 1,000 improvised bomb events occur each month in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problem continues to spread beyond these hotspots, Larkin explained. Another 200 to 400 attempted bombings take place each month in other parts of the world, mostly in Pakistan, India and Colombia.
“More and more we’re seeing the emergence of the IED threat in Mexico and Central America, which is becoming a concern for homeland security,” Larkin said. Even the U.S. home front is not immune to the danger.
“Sometimes they’re categorized as pipe bombings,” he said. “In other cases, they’re car bombs that are placed in Times Square or planes that fly into buildings.”
In trying to beat back the problem, JIEDDO has become an organization that assumes risk. It has the flexibility to move money around and to secure three-year budgets. It instituted a rapid acquisition process. The agency will take chances to get capabilities and deliver them to the battlefield as quickly as possible, Larkin explained.
The future of battling IEDs will come in the form of discovery and exploitation — studying information and connections to turn insurgent groups against each other.
JIEDDO needs technology that can help intelligence specialists and analysts pore through information and find the storyline more quickly. Currently, analysts spend about 80 percent of their time sifting through data and only about 20 percent of the time wrapping their heads around it, Larkin said. He welcomed assistance not just from the goliaths of the IT industry, but also from the “mom-and-pop garage operations.”
Larkin’s speech, which included references to his son serving on the front lines, elicited an enthusiastic and emotional response from the industry crowd.
Not quite mom-and-pop but nowhere near a goliath, Daston Corp. is the kind of company that thinks it can help. The McLean, Va.-based firm specializes in cloud computing technologies, said Mike Pait, vice president of business operations.
Pait said his firm could provide high-end mathematical software that can cut down the time analysts spend sifting through data, allowing them to focus more on what the information means.
Still, other industry executives remain somewhat skeptical about the ability of the IT industry to help to counter roadside bombs. Companies can provide loads of information and surveillance technologies, but “at the end of the day, if some guy’s going to come put a bomb up under your vehicle, there’s not much you can do,” said Tony Lengerich, a retired Navy rear admiral and vice president of business development at Reston, Va.-based software company Oracle.
Efforts to connect the dots might slow down a well-organized network, Lengerich said, but not necessarily the smaller rogue groups.
“It’s a hard problem,” he said. “But I’m not so sure it’s an IT problem.”