WASHINGTON—The Pentagon has made it a top priority to find new means to counter roadside bombs—the biggest killer of American forces in Iraq—and some of its latest improvements in training and equipment are saving lives.
The number of bombs planted against U.S. troops has more than tripled in the last two years and now averages around 1,200 a month, but nearly half of these improvised explosive devices, as the military calls them, are found and disarmed before they explode, and most explosions cause no injuries or deaths.
"In spite of a very large increase in the incidents, the casualty rate has remained fairly constant," retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, said during a recent discussion with defense writers. "He (the enemy) is having to triple or quadruple his effort to get the same casualty effectiveness. ... Most of it doesn't work."
About 75 percent of those wounded in the blasts return to duty within 72 hours, evidence that heavier armor on vehicles and other protective measures are saving lives, Meigs said.
More than 900 American servicemen and women have died from the bombs, which usually are hidden along roadsides and detonated by remote control when convoys pass. The task force, which Meigs was called out of retirement to head six months ago, has a staff of about 270 people and a budget of $3.5 billion this year.
Meigs and other military officials declined to say in much detail what measures they've taken to counter the bombs, because they don't want to give information to the enemy. The improvements mainly result from better training to spot the bombs and better equipment.
One method that's been publicized is the use of radio-frequency jammers. The IED task force is planning to spend more than $1.43 billion this year on jammers designed to block the radio and microwave frequencies that insurgents use to detonate bombs. It plans to spend $613 million on other neutralization devices and $137 million on bomb material-detection equipment.
Meigs said the task force had tested numerous systems designed to destroy, disarm or disable roadside bombs. "A number of systems go to the test ranges," he said, "but I haven't seen a system that actually performs as advertised."
An analysis of official statistics and independent monitoring appears to bear out claims that U.S. casualty rates from roadside bombs have remained relatively constant despite a sharp increase in their use.
Information compiled by the American-led military coalition in Baghdad indicated that at least 2,682 improvised explosive devices were planted against coalition and Iraqi forces in July, compared with 1,482 that were discovered in January. About 40 percent of the bombs over this period were disarmed or cleared before they could explode.
About 1,200 roadside bombs were planted against U.S. forces alone in July, about half of which were disarmed before they exploded, according to the task force.
An average of about 1,200 bombs a month were planted against American forces alone during the months of May, June and July, according to the task force.
So far this year, U.S. forces in Iraq have averaged 29 deaths a month from IED blasts, compared with 34 deaths a month in 2005 and 16 deaths a month in 2004, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks coalition casualties based on Defense Department news releases and news media reports.
"We are making slow, grudging progress," Meigs said. "We will do better over time."
The biggest hindrance to U.S. efforts to counter the bombs has been the availability of technology to insurgents and the speed with which it's changed and become more sophisticated, Meigs said.
When insurgents began using roadside bombs against American forces in July 2003, the most common way of detonating them was by an electric wire connected to a car battery or similar device.
Soon they used cell phones, garage-door openers and other wireless devices to set off bombs. Once U.S. forces started deploying jammers that could scramble or stop microwave transmissions and other signals, insurgents also were using pressure plates, passive infrared beams and other methods of detonation.
In addition, insurgents are using a deadlier type of IED, which the military calls EFPs, or "explosively formed penetrators." The bombs, which produce metal slugs capable of punching through several inches of steel, have destroyed the most heavily armored of American vehicles, including tanks and mine-clearance vehicles. U.S. officials think that Iran has aided insurgents in developing the bombs.
Insurgents get their material from the civilian marketplace, and technological improvements are quickly available to them, Meigs said.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the U.S. Army's deputy for acquisitions and systems management, said that outfitting Humvees, Bradleys and other vehicles with "active" protection systems that could defend against roadside bombs was one of the Army's biggest priorities.
In rough terms, an active protection system would use a weapon or some type of counter-force to prevent a bomb explosion from damaging the vehicle.
The Army has spent the better part of a decade trying to develop a missile system for vehicles that would destroy incoming rocket-propelled grenades. So far, however, "we do not have a producible item," Sorenson said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.