Pentagon may trim IED detector budget

Defense Department weighs program’s necessity, cost

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The Pentagon is eyeing cuts in a war office thought to be untouchable: the organization that devises ways to foil the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Officials say the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has done good work in developing jammers and detection equipment to neutralize the enemy’s use of roadside bombs.

But observers inside and outside the Pentagon say JIEDDO has become unwieldy, with too many private contractors and duplicate programs. Congressional reports have called for stricter Pentagon oversight of JIEDDO’s far-flung programs.

“JIEDDO has managed to spend billions over the last three years without any significant improvement in defenses against bombs,” said a Pentagon official who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about policy.

Daniel Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank, said he had heard that cuts for the department were planned, but did not know how deep they would be.

“It’s been confirmed there is a lot of unhappiness with apparently some of the obscure corners. — A huge amount of the stuff they put into detection has been really questionable,” Mr. Goure said. “We’ve had enough time on science projects that have shown relatively little success. Laser this. Infrared that. And they’ve still got a lot of money in that. A lot of it is hobby-shop, lab kind of stuff.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered the Pentagon and its four military branches to come up with $100 billion in savings over five years, beginning with the 2012 budget that goes to Congress early next year. His idea is not to cut the overall budget of about $700 billion, but to stabilize spending after steep increases that were implemented in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Officials describe Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, in his first year as JIEDDO director, as a combat-experienced officer who is trying to streamline the organization. His recent command assignments included troops in southern Iraq and the 10th Mountain Division.

As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld assigned several agencies in 2004 to find ways to combat improvised explosive devices, a push that led to the creation of JIEDDO in 2006. It was a response to the growing use of homemade bombs by al Qaeda and Ba’ath Party insurgents in Iraq and by the Taliban in Afghanistan, where more than 50 percent of U.S. casualties occur by IEDs.

The Pentagon has spent nearly $20 billion to counter IEDs since 2004. JIEDDO’s work force has grown to about 2,500, and its budget will be more than $3 billion for 2011.

Members of Congress and some in the Pentagon have started to question whether JIEDDO’s spending has produced comparable results, even as the Taliban in Afghanistan turns to the IED as the weapon of choice.

The Pentagon reported that IED attacks increased from 2,677 in 2007 to more than 8,000 in 2009.

What’s more, the number of deaths of NATO forces in Afghanistan attributable to IEDs has risen from 78 in 2007 to 259 in 2009, according to icasualties.org, which tracks war casualties.

Mr. Goure said bomb-detection tactics that work best are “old-school” — constant surveillance of roadways and the use of explosive-sniffing dogs, which the Marines began deploying in 2007.

“We’ve gone through this kind of thing where you’ve got eight different ways to try to find IEDs, but in reality the ones that work, the ones you’ll still be using are the old ones,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to stop the science experiments and go back to them. Clearly, they work.”

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