U.S. Still Searching for Winning Game Plan to Defeat IEDs

By Sandra I. Erwin
Statistics show that fewer American troops are being killed by improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, compared to a year ago. But the U.S. military still is losing the larger war on IEDs. Buried bombs and land mines continue to inflict devastating physical and psychological damage on deployed units and Afghan civilians. And there are no signs that the volume and intensity of attacks will diminish any time soon.
“The enemy in Afghanistan is going to stay on this attack methodology because it works for them,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization.
Oates, who is leaving JIEDDO this week and retiring from the military, said he is optimistic about recent trends that indicate that fewer IED attacks are resulting in U.S. and friendly Afghan casualties — 16 percent as of January 2011, compared to 25 percent in August 2010.
The large number of attacks, however, only demonstrates that IEDs will continue to be the weapon of choice for U.S. adversaries. “The enemy in Afghanistan is putting out between 1,300 to 1,500 IEDs per month,” he said at a March 2 news conference at JIEDDO headquarters in Arlington, Va.
“Statistically, we are not losing the IED fight. These numbers prove it,” Oates said. But he acknowledged that Taliban and Haqqani fighters — a group of insurgents allied to the Taliban — have not lost any motivation or access to materials to make pressure-triggered or remote-control detonated bombs despite U.S. efforts to counter them.
In southern and southwestern areas of Afghanistan, where NATO forces have been conducting more “dismounted” operations without armored vehicles, there has been a “significant increase in single and double amputations,” Oates said.
Technology has aided U.S. forces to some extent. The Pentagon has acquired hundreds of surveillance aircraft and aerostats that provide “persistent” watch over key areas. There are now 75 route-clearing companies that remove IEDs from main roads, compared to only 12 or 13 a year ago, Oates said.
But American commanders still confront a “knowledge gap” that only has grown wider despite a decade of conflict. The problem is a lack of understanding of how enemies communicate and organize as a network, which makes it more difficult to disrupt their bomb-making and emplacing operations, said Oates. That is a shortfall not unique to the Afghan conflict, he noted. “We’re still pretty ignorant about a lot of cultures in the world. … That is compounded by the fact that we don’t really understand what the new communications structures are,” Oates said. “We cannot get at disabling those enemy networks until we understand them better.”
The best hope to turn things around in the future is to boost counter-IED training and education, he said. “The IED environment is a condition of our workplace.” Because it is not going away, it is important for future military leaders to learn how to cope with the threat throughout their entire careers, he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Todd M. Burnett, JIEDDO’s senior enlisted advisor, said many new programs are in place, but more needs to be done. “We have to institutionalize the training at each level and we have to put the right training at the right professional development,” he said.
Leaders also have to learn to deal with the psychological impact that IED attacks have on troops. “One KIA in a unit can cripple that unit,” he said. “We’ve seen it happen. And we have to spend a lot of time pumping soldiers back up.”
Burnett suggested that sergeants major should receive better graduate-level education about the big-picture circumstances and cultural issues that lead to the use of IEDS in the first place. “We have to change the culture and how we think about it,” said Burnett. “Every training event should include counter-IED” programs.
More bad news: outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, IEDs are gaining popularity. Approximately 300 to 400 explosives go off every month in other areas, said Oates. “People will use IEDs to advance their goals.”
Oates predicts that JIEDDO will be around for a while. Its incoming director, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, returned less than a month ago from duty in Iraq overseeing the training of Iraqi forces. He arrives just as JIEDDO prepares to defend its fiscal year 2012 budget — after the current standoff over the 2011 budget is resolved.
The agency requested about $2.8 billion for 2012. Most of the funds are for “attack the network” efforts ($1.3 billion). The rest are for “defeat the device” programs ($961.2 million), training ($247.5 million), and staff and infrastructure ($220.6 million).

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices

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