The hidden killers

DOD's efforts to counter roadside bombs are complicated by the fact that insurgents use the same communications infrastructure as the rest of the Iraqi population

Explosions from roadside bombs started killing American troops in Iraq shortly after President Bush declared victory over Saddam Hussein’s army on May 1, 2003. They haven’t stopped since.

In the early days of what has become a bloody insurgency, military officials referred to the charges simply as mines, said Chad Storlie, then a major in the Army Reserve. Storlie was part of a small special operations unit that had set up shop in Baghdad.

The bombs were clumsy devices that were often poorly concealed, he said. Yet new ones kept going off in different places throughout the city. When Storlie and his team saw how quickly the bombmakers changed their techniques to evade detection, he said, he realized that the U.S. military faced a serious problem.

“By early summer of 2003, people were not yet concerned, but by late summer, everybody was,” said Storlie, who now works in the transportation industry.

More than four years later, evidence of the magnitude of the problem appears almost daily in news headlines and the homes of people who have lost loved ones to roadside bombs. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as Defense Department officials now call them, have killed more than 50 American troops every month since March, according to the online database iCasualties.org.

DOD officials now consider IEDs to be weapons of strategic influence because the carnage they cause — often in places of cultural significance — is meant to intimidate the local population.

Furthermore, the elements of uncertainty and surprise inherent in the bombs most likely have a demoralizing effect on American troops, said David Scruggs, who follows the Pentagon’s efforts to counter IEDs as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After an IED goes off, “there’s nobody to shoot back at,” he said.

The widespread use of information technology by the U.S. military and the insurgents makes the war in Iraq unique, said John Garstka, director of force transformation in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and co-author of the military’s network-centric warfare doctrine. Insurgents use commercial technology, including TV remote-control devices and garage-door openers, to trigger IEDs. They also coordinate their attacks using cell phones and take advantage of the Internet to exchange best practices for making and hiding IEDs, DOD officials said.

“My sense is that this is the first major counterinsurgency that is taking place in the Information Age,” Garstka said. The challenge, he added, is that the U.S. military cannot execute a fundamental tenet of traditional warfare: Go after the enemy’s command and control network.

In the past, Garstka said, “when we went into major combat operations, we just shut the power down.” But in Iraq, the insurgents use the same communications infrastructure that the rest of the population relies on. “It’s a much more complicated situation,” he said.

Since the first roadside bombs exploded in 2003, DOD has intensified its fight against the devices. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England established the secretive Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) in early 2006 to spearhead the military’s efforts to counter the threat.

White House officials have requested $4.5 billion for the organization in the base fiscal 2008 budget request for DOD. To date, JIEDDO has received about $6 billion.

With that funding, JIEDDO has been trying to keep abreast of the ever-changing technologies and techniques insurgents use to plant their charges. “By definition, you’re always playing catch-up” with the insurgents, Scruggs said.

JIEDDO officials have helped field a variety of technologies, including armor for military vehicles and robots to defuse or prematurely detonate roadside bombs. Now the military is increasingly turning to aerial drones that keep a constant watch on Iraq’s roads to track where insurgents plant new bombs.

The organization has also fielded thousands of jammers to keep insurgents from triggering remote-control bombs as military patrols and convoys roll through the streets. Unfortunately, jammers have also been known to disable vital military communications gear and nearby civilian communications.

The Pentagon plans to send an initial batch of about 20 laptop PCs with experimental software to Baghdad in August to help commanders avoid those interference problems. The system, named the Coalition Joint Spectrum Management Planning Tool and funded in part by JIEDDO, will help convoy leaders know what frequencies they can jam without disrupting other communications equipment, said Thomas Taylor, a spectrum management analyst in DOD’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

“The central idea is denying someone access [to the electromagnetic spectrum] while you still retain access,” he said. “And that is very complex because you now have airwaves that are very congested.”

Officials had planned to field the initial system in June. However, cataloging the waveform characteristics of U.S. military gear and known civilian emitters in Baghdad took longer than expected, Taylor said. Once the program passes a set of Pentagon-mandated reviews in late fiscal 2008, it will become a program of record and the system will be available in larger quantities, he said.

Some senior Pentagon officials have criticized JIEDDO for its focus on technology, so the organization has increased its efforts to disrupt the insurgent network behind the bomb makers. “Instead of focusing on protection, if we can move up the kill chain and get to the folks who are training the bombmakers and to some of the caches of weapons, we will be more effective,” said one Pentagon official who requested anonymity.

Specifically, sources say, JIEDDO has expanded its efforts in the area of intelligence and criminal forensics, incorporating techniques similar to those used in law enforcement and counternarcotics operations. Scruggs said officials now try to work backward to get an understanding of what led to an IED attack and where the parts for the bomb came from.

To boost its ability to conduct stability operations, the Army is considering including forensic laboratories as a component of its servicewide overhaul. A draft action plan being circulated among Army officers would charge the Army Training and Doctrine Command with developing such a capability in cooperation with the Army Criminal Investigation Command, sources said.

Garstka said understanding the human and social factors behind the insurgency is essential for reducing IED attacks and defeating the insurgency.

“People are starting to understand that you really have to deal with the population and figure out a way to have them be the conduit for information on who the bad guys are who are planting the IEDs,” he said. “A much greater understanding exists that we have to deal with these people as individuals.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has increased its activities in the field of biometrics. Some officials say the development reflects a new focus on individual enemies as opposed to the large armies of the Cold War. Troops in Iraq collect biometric information on local residents in an attempt to distinguish peaceful civilians from violent insurgents, and JIEDDO has started incorporating biometric technology into its forensics work, officials say.

Those technical measures take time, but some lawmakers are becoming impatient with the continued rate of American casualties from roadside bombs. In late June, retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, JIEDDO’s director, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee to update lawmakers on the organization’s work. A spokeswoman for the committee declined to comment on what was discussed at the hearing because the event was closed to the public. But the committee’s June 5 report on the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill suggests the senators had some tough questions for Meigs.

In the report, committee members said JIEDDO is unaware of efforts in the military services to combat IEDs, so it often duplicates their efforts. Committee members were also concerned about the organization’s investment strategy, and their report faulted the JIEDDO for failing to provide appropriate training for deploying troops who might be exposed to IEDs overseas.

House lawmakers have also criticized JIEDDO. In their report on the Defense Authorization bill, members of the House Armed Services Committee complained about having insufficient information about the organization’s work, which has made lawmakers question whether DOD is dedicating adequate resources to “the full spectrum of tasks” required to defeat IEDs.

In a June 21 interview on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Meigs defended the organization’s progress, saying the insurgents are now forced to place six times as many IEDs as they did in the summer of 2003 to achieve the same “rate of casualties overall.”

In an April response to an editorial in the Marine Corps Times newspaper, Meigs wrote that the insurgents’ seemingly limitless access to technological innovations makes it difficult for the U.S. military to keep up with their techniques.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said JIEDDO’s secrecy could be hindering the military’s progress. “You do not want to alert your adversary to your vulnerabilities and capabilities,” he said. “On the other hand, classification can impede development of countermeasures by limiting who you can discuss the matter with…. It’s a basic conundrum that arises whenever you classify technology.”

At the top levels of the Pentagon, John Young, director of Defense Research and Engineering, might emerge as one of the key players in what could be a major shift in the military’s counter-IED efforts, some observers say. In June, President Bush nominated Young to take the powerful job of undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

If the Senate approves his appointment, Young is expected to review all aspects of the military’s counter-IED program, including JIEDDO. “He does not make changes without first gathering the data,” said one Pentagon source. “I’m sure he has some opinions, but he’ll go ahead and look at it.”

The Defense Science Board’s forthcoming assessment of the military’s counter-IED efforts could also affect JIEDDO’s future. The board’s report is due out soon, and it is expected to be fairly critical, the source said.

DOD officials say they might be hard-pressed to prevent extremists from resorting to IEDs entirely. But they hope that yet another IT project might help them understand and ultimately influence the insurgents’ motivations. A simulation project to model human, social and cultural behavior is slated to begin this summer.
DOD lags in developing information superiorityJohn Garstka, whose writings helped usher in a new era of network-centric capabilities at the Defense Department, said the war against insurgents in Iraq who are planting roadside bombs must be fought with information — for example, information about who the insurgents are.

“The core of any counterinsurgency is what's going on in the information domain," said Garstka, DOD's director of force transformation.

However, he added, "we have an ongoing conflict where we don't have information superiority." Garstka said DOD should rethink its fundamental approach to war. “My sense is we don’t have the principles right for this,” he said. “Our principles of war don't address information explicitly.”

-- Sebastian Sprenger
Hitting the limits of technologyThe Pentagon’s war against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq is a high-stakes race that pits ever-changing technologies against one another. At the same time, officials are realizing there are limits to what technology can do to solve the problem.

“Ultimately, you need a political solution that would make people stop planting these bombs,” said David Scruggs, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is ultimately no technical solution.”

Scruggs said industry participation is a necessary part of efforts to eliminate the threat of IEDs. “The Pentagon itself can’t do it alone,” he said.

— Sebastian Sprenger

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