Army General: DoD Must Avoid a Repeat of ‘Hillbilly Armor’
The end of the Iraq war and a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan should not be interpreted as cues to stop investing in counter-bomb technologies, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
Investments in both counter-IED technologies and troop training must persist into the future, as U.S. forces will continue to face these threats in most of the world’s likely hotspots, Barbero said Dec. 5 at a conference in Washington, D.C.
JIEDDO was created in 2004 with the sole purpose of helping U.S. forces combat the scourge of roadside bombs in war zones. Buried explosives have killed and wounded thousands of American and allied troops, and have become insurgents’ weapons of choice. They range from home-cooked fertilizer bombs to sophisticated armor-killing penetrators.
Barbero said JIEDDO still has a long list of “capability gaps” that it hopes to fill in the coming months. “We must be able to produce capabilities in months and not in some five-year program,” he said.
Barbero, who commanded troops in Iraq over three separate tours, worries that the Defense Department’s procurement system is not responsive enough to urgent needs. “We must avoid a repeat of the 'hillbilly armor' problem that we saw in Iraq,” he said.
"Hillbilly armor” — a term coined by soldiers in Iraq in 2004 to describe scrap metal they used to armor their Humvee trucks — has become a metaphor for the Pentagon’s failure to equip trucks with armor before the Iraq invasion. At the time, armored Humvees were not a “program of record” in the Army’s budget.
“We cannot go back to those days” when the U.S. military was caught unprepared, Barbero said. “We have to be able to identify these threats and have technologies fielded.”
JIEDDO’s current wish list focuses on technologies for dismounted troops who are exposed to IED attacks as they patrol villages in Afghanistan away from their heavily armored mine-resistant trucks.
Barbero said one of the highest priorities are “pre-detonation” tools, preferably lightweight and easy to carry. Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan have asked for systems to set off buried bombs at the place and time of their choosing, before the hidden explosives kill U.S. forces, allies or innocent civilians. Current pre-denotation systems are bulky — some as big as a tractor trailer — and are not easy to use in Afghanistan’s rough terrain.
Another immediate need are light robots that soldiers can carry in their rucksacks for surveillance and to help identify possible IEDs without putting themselves at risk.
An even more urgent requirement — more so than technology — is counter-IED training for war-bound troops, said Barbero. Training is the “biggest gap” right now, he said. Units that deploy to Afghanistan, for instance, often don’t have a chance to learn how to operate robots, metal detectors or other counter-bomb systems until they get there. Barbero would like to see more home-station training. JIEDDO recently invested $24 million in 75 kits for home station instruction.
Training efforts also should support foreign allies and State Department’s security programs, said Barbero. Currently JIEDDO is not allowed to provide resources for interagency training activities, and he would like to see that change. Fighting IEDs, he said, requires a “whole of government approach,” whereas current efforts are DoD-centric. JIEDDO needs help from the intelligence community, for example, to help connect the dots on how insurgents are able to obtain calcium ammonium nitrate which is used to make fertilizer to produce highly lethal bombs in Afghanistan, he said. At least 80 percent of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are caused by fertilizer bombs, he said.
The war against IEDs will not be won as long as U.S. commanders are not able to trace the origin of these bombs or identify the manufacturers, he said. That requires assistance from all intelligence agencies. “We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to detect and neutralize this threat,” Barbero said. “It’s a business model that we can’t sustain.”
One of JIEDDO’s challenges is to secure funding for the long term. The agency’s nearly $3 billion budget today comes entirely from “overseas contingency operations” appropriations, aka “emergency war” funding, rather than from the Pentagon’s base budget. Barbero would like to at least a portion of JIEDDO’s programs become part of the Pentagon’s normal budgeting process.