In Afghanistan, a soldier’s best friend is no longer a bomb-sniffing dog, but an electronic sensor.
The Pentagon organization that oversees the effort to detect buried bombs says technological devices are proving more effective than specially trained dogs on the battlefield.
“Among the systems, we still employ the dogs, but we’re sort of de-emphasizing them because we find that other technologies are far more effective,” said Rod Korba, a spokesman for the Defense Department’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).
“What it comes down to is we have other resources that we have had greater statistical success, handheld sensors and things like that.”
The remark represents a shift in strategy from less than two years ago. JIEDDO’s past director told reporters in October 2010 that the best way to find the deadly explosives is a soldier and a dog.
“Dogs are the best detectors,” Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates said, noting that a dog and dismounted soldiers can find 80 percent of roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of American troops in Afghanistan.
“That combo presents the best detection system we currently have,” Gen. Oates said, according to National Defense magazine.
At that time, congressional aides said JIEDDO had spent $19 billion - much of it on various sensors and jammers to defeat the bombs.
Today, under Gen. Oates’ successor, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, JIEDDO is de-emphasizing the role of dogs and touting air- and ground-based sensors designed to detect the enemy’s ever-changing types of buried bombs.
In some cases, the dogs become more of a soldier’s companion than an animal programmed to find a certain scent, Mr. Korba said.
“What we have discovered about the dog-scent concept is that they’re not as successful under certain circumstances as they could be,” he said. “It turns out if you treat the dog like a machine, it does a very, very effective job.
“The problem is our troops end up befriending these animals and they engage with them on different levels, and it kind of hurts their effectiveness, Mr. Korba said. “One of the things that we have discovered over the last few years is that we don’t have a good procedure right now to train our people how to use the dogs. And so sometimes they are used effectively and sometimes they are not.”
The dogs are effective in finding the IED subset known as homemade explosives (HMEs), which are made from fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate and assembled in backroom operations by Taliban fighters.
“There has been some investment in the animals,” Mr. Korba said. “We’ve taught them how to pick up the scent for HMEs. They’ve been imprinted with those kinds of sensing skills.
“So we still work with them. We just are not emphasizing them to the degree that we’re emphasizing other technologies and other capabilities that we provide for the soldiers.”
Dogs and other tools
The JIEDDO website contains an endorsement of using dogs to find fertilizer and chemical bombs.
“JIEDDO is funding more than $12 million for new and existing IED detection dog training programs,” the site states. “Distinct from the DoD military working dog programs, the detection canine can pick up the odors produced by the explosives in the form of invisible vapors or signatures and detect surface laid, buried and hidden IEDs.”
The Web page shows a photo of a detection services dog handler and his dog, Tinus. The item says the use of such dogs has increased.
But Mr. Korba said: “The dog budget is a smaller portion of what we were doing two years ago.”
The military owns about 2,700 dogs, up from 1,800 before Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Defense Department. About 600 are deployed as “war dogs.”
At a JIEDDO conference last year, Gen. Barbero, who did three tours and 46 months in Iraq before becoming director in March 2011, said roadside bombs in Afghanistan were increasingly being made with homemade explosives.
“Explosives can be made from a range of fertilizers, but it is far too easy to turn calcium ammonium nitrate into a bomb, and it is the bomb-maker’s product of choice - by far,” Gen. Barbero said, according to ABC News.
The JIEDDO website displays information about several counter-IED systems, including bomb-clearing vehicles, mini-robots such as the Devil Pup, aerostat balloons with surveillance gear to find insurgents planting bombs, metal detectors - and dogs.
Said Mr. Korba: “There’s far more IEDs being employed against us, of different varieties. We’re finding more of them. But clearly we’re not finding all of them.”
At least 1,266 troops have been killed by IEDs since the start of the Afghanistan War, including 61 this year, according to icasualties.org, which keeps tracks of such statistics. Last year, 252 troops were killed by IEDs, a 31 percent reduction from 2010’s tally.