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."
Air Force Col. Rene White, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said there is no specific order from Mr. Gates to trim JIEDDO.
"I can say the secretary directed a comprehensive assessment of every aspect of how this department is organized and operated to inform the fiscal 2012 budget request and in order to create a more agile, flatter and efficient organization," Col. White said.
"This review will conclude with actionable options for increasing the effectiveness and agility of the department. These components may find efficiencies in many areas of the budget to meet those targets, but they must focus on headquarters and administrative functions, support activities and other overhead," she said.
JIEDDO's Web pages tell of success stories — the deployment of detection systems and electronic jammers that have saved lives.
One system is a ground radar that detects mines. "This system successfully identified pressure-plate IEDs before they detonated," the organization said.
It also distributed more than 5,000 units of an advanced Combined Vehicle Radio Jammer that is designed to block the enemy's ability to detonate a bomb remotely via devices such as cell phones.
Another system is the Route Clearance Blower. Mounted on a vehicle's front, it clears debris and makes it easier to identify camouflaged IEDS. JIEDDO also produced a hand-held explosives-detection device called Ahura.
JIEDDO has had mixed results with airborne surveillance attempting to detect changes on the ground that indicate an IED has been planted.
"We've had mixed reviews early on, but the technology is getting better," Gen. Oates told reporters in March. "And I believe that the change-detection technology that we're going to insert, in Afghanistan, will pay us some dividends.
"There's, you know, always a search to try and find the one method that's going to help us find all these IEDs. And what I've discovered over the years is that there is no one separate solution," he said.
Still, Congress says JIEDDO lacks oversight.
Two House Armed Services Committee reports this year complained of "redundant activity" by JIEDDO on the one hand and by the military services on the other.
"Many efforts to address the IED threat at the service, joint and interagency level have continued after the creation of JIEDDO, and it is still unclear to what extent all [counter-]IED efforts have been coordinated by JIEDDO," one report said.
Another said: "Although different branches of the military have been doing notable work on counter-IED initiatives, the department lacks an overarching system to track these initiatives across the services."
The report added, however, that there "is no doubt that despite the complexity and difficulty of its mission, JIEDDO and its predecessor organizations have made significant contributions to the [counter]-IED effort."
The Senate Armed Services Committee's pending budget bill for fiscal 2011 calls on the defense secretary to submit an extensive report to Congress on how JIEDDO operates.
The committee wants "an assessment of whether JIEDDO or the military services are performing activities that are duplicative and determination of where these activities should be located. — The committee believes more must be done to increase oversight of JIEDDO's activities."
It called for a system of metrics to measure whether a particular system actually reduces casualties.
"There's got to be stuff that you sort of say the return on investment or the likelihood of success is simply so low that you ought to be cutting back," said Mr. Goure.
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