JIEDDO May Survive Afghanistan, But Likely Will Be Shell of Former Self

By Dan Parsons
Since its inception in 2006, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization has taken point in brainstorming ways to find homemade bombs before they harm U.S. troops.
After its success quickly fielding life-saving technologies like ground robots and IED sensors, the organization swelled to more than 3,000 personnel and was established as a three-star command with direct access to the highest levels of civilian defense leadership.
With budgets nose-diving, and overseas combat operations ending, the only thing certain about JIEDDO’s future is that it will shrink — perhaps to less than a sixth of its current size after the U.S. military exits Afghanistan, its director, Army Lt. Gen. John Johnson said Feb 18. 
Johnson took the JIEDDO helm about six months ago, following a tour as chief of 8th Army in Korea. He was immediately given guidance by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to shrink JIEDDO in tandem with the drawdown in Afghanistan.
“Over the course of this year, we are executing a plan to take JIEDDO from about 3,000 down to about 1,000 [personnel],” Johnson told a handful of defense reporters at the organization’s Arlington, Va., headquarters. “That will allow us to support the priority effort that we have, which of course is Afghanistan.”
Before leaving his post last year, Carter gave Johnson a second directive to design an “enduring capability” to preserve some version of JIEDDO beyond the 2014 deadline to withdraw the majority of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Carter wanted to know what size organization would be needed to preserve lessons learned from more than a decade of war, broaden its application to both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts and predict and “counter-surprise” future threats, Johnson said.
“We’re in the process of doing that now,” he said. “We’ve developed some ways of looking at a future JIEDDO. In Dr. Carter’s guidance to me, it was to scale it even further” to just 400 personnel that would carry on JIEDDO's mission once the U.S. military pulls out of Afghanistan.
He will have to determine what can be accomplished with 400 personnel and what the risks are associated with the reduction. “If you reduce it beyond a point, it can take six months, a year, even longer to reestablish it and in that time period our soldiers in the field and our Marines are suffering from the effects of IEDs.”
The entire structure of the organization might change as it downsizes. JIEDDO already has plans to vacate the multi-story office building it occupies in the Crystal City neighborhood near the Pentagon for more modest digs in Reston, Va.
Johnson said there are options to reduce the organization’s stature from a three-star command with direct access to the deputy defense secretary.
The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force — another ad hoc organization forged by necessity in 2001 to rush innovative gear to combat troops — is by comparison, commanded by a colonel. The REF in January was granted permanent status by the Army, which authorized transferring its military and personnel to Army Training and Doctrine Command in 2015.
JIEDDO has received no such memo. Johnson expects to present in March or April his concept of operations for an enduring JIEDDO to the new deputy defense secretary — likely to be former assistant secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work.
The deputy will then decide whether to authorize continued funding for the organization. JIEDDO’s funding is still completely drawn from overseas contingency operations accounts. It has requested funding in every base budget since its conception in 2006 but has been repeatedly turned down.
“I believe that based on the guidance that Dr. Carter has already given me, that there is appreciation that it ought to be” an enduring organization. "The key is that it be scaled to what the nation can afford. We have got to be smart about how we structure it so it can be rapidly expanded as necessary based on the threat and the challenge we’re going to face in the future.”
“It is pretty clear … we can’t sustain it straight line and we can’t retain all capabilities,” Johnson said. “So the guiding principles have been … what are those pieces that we have to retain … that are very difficult to grow in a short period of time?”
Elements of the organization that are duplicated by peer units could be scaled very small, he said. The experts and engineers at REF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to name two, could take over many JIEDDO duties without a loss in productivity, he said. Johnson has also been asked to determine whether the JIEDDO model is applicable to other missions, including counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency, among others.
“It comes down to whether JIEDDO was stood up solely for Iraq and Afghanistan — and since we’re out of Iraq and we’re coming out of Afghanistan — is there a role for it?” Johnson asked.
In the last fiscal year, there were more than 15,000 identified homemade bombs around the world, not including Afghanistan. Those bombs caused almost 40,000 casualties.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, JIEDDO is passing its mission onto the Afghan National Security Forces, which are taking on greater security responsibilities and, as a result, more IED casualties, Johnson said. The organization has also been given congressional authorization to use its budget to fund operations by other U.S. government agencies in those countries to control the distribution of bomb precursors like fertilizer.
JIEDDO releases weekly tabulations of reported IED blasts worldwide. In the week of Feb. 5, for example, it identified at least 19 homemade bomb explosions on five continents, including a parcel bomb in Lebanon, Tenn., that killed two.
“Since I joined JIEDDO, what has become most clear to me is how the use of IEDs has expanded around the globe,” he said. “You’ve got IEDs in just about every country you can think of, but with certainly a lot of … activity in places like Pakistan, Syria, now in Iraq again, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines and India.”
The relatively inexpensive weapon can be built very simply or with great technological sophistication and with easily obtained materials. Expert bomb makers have migrated from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — where the bombs have proven effective against U.S. and NATO troops — to North Africa, Syria and Europe. The pressure cooker bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year were considered textbook IEDs, Johnson said.
There is a widespread desire in allied nations to learn from U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan regarding homemade bombs, he said. JIEDDO has formed working relationships with several countries, many of which have established similar counter-IED organizations.
“We have been sharing ideas on how to organize the effort … and even some of the tactics, techniques and procedures that have worked for us,” Johnson said. “I think, based on what I hear from individual countries and from the combatant commands, that this demand is going to continue to grow as countries try to deal with the problems they have.”
Since taking the job, Johnson has traveled extensively — focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan — to solicit from U.S. and allied military leaders their ongoing experiences with IEDs.
“We’re all in a similar situation right now,” he said. “We are all currently downsizing our efforts in Afghanistan to a significant degree. We’re no longer in Iraq. Most of our budgets among our allies are being reduced fairly considerably. The question is ‘How do we posture ourselves so that we don’t allow ourselves to be taken by surprise by some adaptation or permutation we might see in the future?’”
Future threats that could prove as disruptive in the next decade include GPS jamming technologies and the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction such as low-grade nuclear bombs and chemical or biological agents, Johnson said.
The organization may have a full-time job on its hands countering evermore-innovative homemade bomb designs, to include undetectable precursors or new detonation methods, he added.
JIEDDO homemade bomb experts took part in every exercise in which the U.S. military and its allies participated in Korea. They helped leaders understand what IED threats likely would appear in different situations should war occur on the Korean Peninsula, Johnson said.
In Korea there is a significant conventional mine problem, but IEDs certainly would appear if a war sparked, Johnson said. The same is true anywhere the United States may find itself fighting, he added.
“It’s clear that we’re going to face, in the event that we were ever to go to war there, significant guerilla activities and there’s no question in my mind that the North Koreans, like many of our potential adversaries, have watched us very closely this past 12 years,” Johnson said. “Those things they perceived to have worked, or those things that were perceived to have caused us problems, we can expect to see those kinds of things on almost any battlefield.”
In many cases, an organization like JIEDDO that is well connected to science, technology and research-and-development communities — that has an acquisition arm focused on rapid fielding rather than programs of record — would be invaluable to the Defense Department, he said.
“JIEDDO has been very successful in helping our military deal with this specific threat and as we watch what is going on around the world. We don’t see this threat diminishing,” Johnson said. “It has been effective, especially against security forces that are not as equipped to deal with it. … Just about anywhere we put troops on the ground to protect our interests, they are going to be at risk to IEDs.”

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices

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