Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The war against improvised explosive devices (IED's)

Wired magazine's Danger Room military blog/magazine has published a fascinating look at the long, arduous fight to develop countermeasures against terrorist explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's a short extract to whet your appetite.

In the early years of the Iraq war, the U.S. military developed a technology so secret that soldiers would refuse to acknowledge its existence, and reporters mentioning the gear were promptly escorted out of the country. That equipment – a radio-frequency jammer – was upgraded several times, and eventually robbed the Iraq insurgency of its most potent weapon, the remote-controlled bomb. But the dark veil surrounding the jammers remained largely intact, even after the Pentagon bought more than 50,000 units at a cost of over $17 billion.

. . .

Afghan militants began attacking U.S. troops with improvised explosive devices in the first days after the October 2001 invasion. By early ‘02, al-Qaida bomb-makers were cramming radio frequency receivers and simple digital signal decoders into the bases of Japan InstaLite fluorescent lamps. Then they’d connect the two-and-a-half inch wide lamp bases to firing circuits, and to Soviet-era munitions. The result was a crude, radio-controlled weapon dubbed the “Spider” by the Americans. With it, an attacker could wait for his prey, set off the bomb at just the right moment — and never have to worry about getting caught. When the explosion happened, he’d be hundreds of yards away.

. . .

By May 1, 2004 — one year to the day since President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations — the improvised bombs had wounded more than 2,000 American troops in Iraq. The IEDs killed 57 servicemembers in April alone, and injured another 691. “IEDs are my number-one threat in Iraq. I want a full-court press on IEDs,” Gen. John Abizaid, then the top military commander in the Middle East, wrote in a June 2004 memo.

In the early fall of 2004, the Army signed a contract for 1,000 Warlocks [a type of jamming device]. By March, 2005, the Army upped that order to 8,000 jammers. It was a high-tech, electromagnetic surge. And it was meant to send the militants sliding back down the scale of sophistication. “If somebody can sit a click [kilometer] away with a radio and target our guys, we’ve got almost no ability to get him,” says a source familiar with the jammer buildup. “But if he’s doing the Wile E. Coyote thing, and pushing down that plunger, at least we’ve got some chance to shoot him before he gets it down.”

All the big defense contractors — and lots of little ones — got into the electronic countermeasure business. The Marines bought one model; the Army another; Special Operations Forces, a third. The Army began buying Warlock Reds — small, active jammers that blocked out the low-powered triggers that Warlock Green couldn’t stop in time. Warlock Blue was a wearable jammer, to protect the infantryman on patrol. Each countermeasure had its shortcomings; Warlock Blue, for instance, was “a half-watt jammer at a time when some engineers suspected that 50 watts might be too weak,” Atkinson notes. But no commander could afford to wait for a perfect, common bomb-stopper; too many men were getting blown up. By May 1, 2005, the number of U.S. troops wounded by the bombs had climbed to more than 7,700.

There were drawbacks to throwing all those countermeasures into the field at once. Warlock Green would sometimes mistake Warlock Red’s signal for an enemy’s, and go after it. That would lock the jammers in a so-called “deadly embrace,” cancelling one another out.

When the Warlocks were operational, they wreaked havoc with both the remote-controlled robots that were supposed to handle bombs at a safe distance and the radios soldiers used to warn each other about upcoming threats. Warlock Red “prevented communications” from three of the Army’s most common radio systems, according to a classified report released by WikiLeaks. The report recommended keeping radios and countermeasures in different vehicles to prevent the “electronic fratricide.” Of course, that meant a soldier with a jammer in his Humvee was cut off from the rest of his convoy.

For reporters, pointing out these drawbacks — in fact, pointing out anything about the jammers — risked a swift military response. In Baghdad, a top official with the Joint IED Task Force called me an al-Qaida ally for putting together a Wired.com report on counter-IED technologies based on other publicly-available information. A few months later, David Axe mentioned the Warlocks in a post for Defensetech.org from Iraq. Shortly after the post went live, Axe was detained, and was promptly thrown out of the country.

Even more secret were the flights of the jammers in the sky. The Navy’s EA-6 Prowlers could not only block triggering signals; they could remotely detonate the bombs, as well. But they had to be very, very careful. U.S. vehicles equipped with jammers had to get off of the roads, or risk the deadliest embrace of all. Pilots had to make sure that civilians were nowhere nearby, when they set the bombs off.

There's much more at the link. Highly recommended viewing for all those who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who've had family members serve there, or who are veterans. It's an eye-opening introduction to the technology of terrorism, and how to counter it.

(Another excellent source of information on this subject, mentioned frequently in the Wired article, is 'Left Of Boom: The Struggle To Defeat Roadside Bombs', by Rick Atkinson, published in the Washington Post. Also highly recommended.)


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