The Army general in charge of defeating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan says the most effective tool is "two men and a dog," even though the military has spent nearly $10 billion on new detection and clearing technologies.
Lt. Gen. Michael L. Oates said his task force is surging anti-bomb resources — human and technological — into Afghanistan to support the expanded U.S.-led coalition troop presence there. But he acknowledged that he has more work to do to find ways to measure how effective their efforts are.
Gen. Oates' task force, Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), was established five years ago and has spent $16.6 billion — about $9.4 billion of it on technology to detect and neutralize homemade bombs that can be built and hidden in a variety of ways.
Gen. Oates said technology, like the electronic frequency jammers used in Iraq to prevent bombs from being detonated by cell phones or TV remotes, has been successful, but the highest detection rates were still achieved using K-9 units and trained handlers.
"The majority of IEDs are still found by well-trained soldiers in partnership with their host-nation forces and using a dog. That is still the greatest return on investment at this point," he said.
Gen. Oates also confirmed a Washington Times report last month that the organization expects to trim its budget for 2012.
"We are based against the demands from theater," he said. "I do anticipate seeing a [budget] reduction, consistent with reduced demand," resulting from the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq.
He did not elaborate, and JIEDDO staff were unable to provide a figure.
The general, who assumed command of JIEDDO in December, addressed criticism from congressional investigators and other watchdogs that his task force has lacked strategic focus and has had weak internal management controls.
"Some of that criticism has been valid over the years," he said, promising to "take a look at all of the … faults that have been identified" and make a "good-faith effort to correct those."
He said the task force had surged resources to Afghanistan over the past four or five months, deploying "persistent surveillance capability" such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), hand-held and vehicle-mounted detection gear, road-clearing machines and K-9 teams of sniffer dogs.
The speed of the deployment "present[ed] some challenges," the general said, including preparing enough sites from which to launch UAVs, and collecting and interpreting all the data from their video cameras and other sensors.
"The data and translating that into analysis requires some software and some people on the ground," he said.
Eight hundred analysts would be recruited, trained and deployed to Afghanistan over the next year to help in that task, he said. "We are meeting the challenge."
But he said demand would continue to grow as more and more new kinds of sensors were deployed. At the moment, he said, the military's data highways were coping with the load.
"Currently, we do not have bandwidth issues at higher-level headquarters, it becomes a little bit more problematic when you get down to battalion and company level, where we lack the bandwidth and the hardware to extend the reach" of front-line soldiers, he said.
Gen. Oates acknowledged that JIEDDO's budget figures tell only half the story. "That's just a measure of output. It just says what we've bought with the money, what's missing is the 'So, what?' factor, the measure of effectiveness."
"This year, we're working hard this year to answer that question" and to try to quantify the lives saved, he said.
In the meantime, he said, he has detected a plateauing of attack numbers, although it is too early to say whether that is a trend. One encouraging early sign is reports that the price of fertilizer and other chemicals used to make bombs is rising.
"We have seen what appears to be a higher price demand" for ingredients, he said. "That's the trend line we're looking for, when the enemy is having to pay more for the raw material, or having a harder time finding the raw material."
He added that the task force also supported intelligence-led efforts to identify "the whole supply chain" for IEDs in Afghanistan, but the sanctuary that militants enjoy in Pakistan makes that a problem.
The raw ingredients for homemade explosives "almost exclusively come from Pakistan," Gen. Oates said, and over the last six months, Afghan and Pakistani authorities have banned import and export of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and tried to interdict its traffic across the border. But that effort, he said, was "nowhere near where it needs to be to be effective."
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