Once upon a time, the U.S. military thought it was pretty much through having to deal with large scale, protracted counterinsurgency operations. That is what it was told by the Pentagon in the 2010 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2012 Quadrennial Defense Review. It followed that no more counterinsurgencies meant a significantly reduced danger from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the singular threat that confronted U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one time during the U.S. military involvement in those two countries, IEDs were responsible for more than 60 percent of U.S. casualties. A massive, focused effort, centered on the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), was able to reduce the IED threat by more than half. The post-Iraq/Afghanistan military didn’t see the need nor did it have the funds to invest in advanced counter-IED capabilities. JIEDDO was initially downsized and renamed the Joint IED Defeat Agency (JIDA), and there is an effort underway by some in Congress to bury the new organization within some larger entity.
Looks like the Pentagon, the military and JIDA opponents in Congress were all wrong. Far from being contained, the threat from Islamic jihadist groups is becoming more potent and widespread. ISIS has gone from being the junior varsity team to a proto-state with offshoots in half a dozen countries, and a strategic reach extending from Raqqa to Paris.
So too is the IED threat. Whether in the form of explosive vests, such as those worn by the Paris terrorists, the pressure cooker bombs built by the Tsarnayev brothers for their attack on the Boston Marathon, land mines or massive vehicle-borne devices, IEDs are the weapon of choice for insurgents and terrorists across the globe. ISIS has raised the use of IEDs, both quantitatively and qualitatively to a new level, employing them as the terrorist’s equivalent of both precision-guided munitions and massed indirect fire support. According to Lieutenant General Michael Shields, JIDA’s director:
“Imagine belts of IEDs … used to shape the battlespace, using suicide vehicle-born improvised explosive devices as their precision guided munition … and an incredible capacity to produce many of them — and by many I mean 10, 20, 30, in an individual attack. ISIL is employing technology, while not overly sophisticated, in innovative ways such as using crush switches in buildings, using anti-tamper, anti-lift and motion sensor triggers.”
U.S. forces are not leaving Afghanistan as originally planned, and they are slowly making their way back into Iraq. Grappling effectively with the challenge posed by ISIS and similar insurgent groups means, among other things, dealing anew with the IED threat. Even if local allies provide the bulk of the ground forces to fight ISIS, they will need U.S. and allied support for a variety of specialized functions, including countering IEDs.
JIEDDO/JIDA developed a potent family of capabilities to detect and neutralize IEDs. These included manned aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and tethered blimps with a host of sensors. Vehicle-mounted and man-portable devices to jam radio controlled IEDS were deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, JIEDDO has created the world’s most extensive database on IEDs as well as an unparalleled bomb forensics capability.
JIEDDO/JIDA’s ambitious plans to develop advanced IED detection and jamming capabilities languished in the temporary glow of post-Iraq optimism at the Pentagon. The potential to take the counter IED fight to new levels is still present. For example, JIDA is currently working on the Standoff Suicide Bomb Detection System, an array of sensors that could allow detection of man-portable IEDS at ranges of several hundred feet. Such a system would be particularly useful for large buildings, sports arenas, airports, train terminals and even amusement parks.
Advanced IED jammers is another area where additional investment could provide significant payoffs. In the future fight against ISIS and similar organizations, IED jammers need to be ubiquitous. This means they need to be lighter, use less power and employ software-defined architectures that enable rapid response to changes in the threat. If the events in Paris portend the future, police and security forces the world over will need IED jamming capabilities. This means systems that can block the threat without negating local emergency communications.
JIEDDO/JIDA developed a world-class network of government laboratories, universities, military facilities and ranges, and private companies focused on understanding and defeating IEDs. As the Pentagon, the government and the Nation contemplate next steps in countering the Islamic Jihadist menace, we need to get ahead of the problem. This means reinvigorating the network and investing in new counter IED capabilities.
Find Archived Articles: