WASHINGTON—As Iraqi insurgents become more skilled at hiding deadly roadside bombs, the Pentagon is scrambling to find new ways to protect American troops.
U.S. military officials estimate that these improvised explosive devices, the military's term for booby-trapped or remote-detonated bombs, have caused as many as 70 percent of the casualties—dead and wounded—in Iraq.
A special IED task force at the Defense Department has spent $852 million since 2004 on projects to reduce the threat of these weapons, and $145 million more is in the pipeline, task force spokesman Richard Bridges said.
Bridges and others cautioned that technology is no silver bullet, because insurgents keep getting better at building makeshift bombs and more creative in hiding and using them.
Still, some of the new inventions sound promising. Two American companies have developed devices that are meant to take the bang out of the bombs before they explode, and they hope to test them in Iraq in coming months.
Ionatron of Tucson, Ariz., is almost ready to send a remote-controlled vehicle that travels up to 35 mph and uses a high-voltage surge of electricity, similar to a lightning bolt, to disable or destroy hidden explosives from up to 1,000 yards away. The company calls it JIN, for Joint IED Neutralizer.
JIN would sweep dangerous areas clear of bombs before U.S. troops entered. It has proved successful in 90 percent of field tests so far, said Mark Carallo, a company spokesman.
Ionatron is under contract with the U.S. military to produce 12 of the devices. Each costs a little less than $1 million to produce, Carallo said. The company unveiled a prototype July 8 at Stennis Space Center, Miss., where production will take place.
Ionatron hopes to field all 12 in Iraq within the next 45 to 60 days, Carallo said.
"There is nothing more terrifying to a soldier than going out on patrol and not knowing what's out there," Carallo said. "This is going to allow our soldiers to have confidence that when they go out on patrol that the threat of IEDs is going to be significantly reduced."
Alliant Techsystems of Edina, Minn., announced last month that it had won a $1.5 million contract from the Air Force to develop its Scorpion II Demonstration System, which uses high-powered microwave energy to neutralize explosive devices.
The system also works from a distance, though the company won't say how far or provide further detail except to say it was effective 74 percent of the time in tests at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.
"The last thing we want to do is let insurgents know how it works," said Bryce Hallowell, an Alliant spokesman. "But it's a promising technology, and we're trying to move this thing into a deployable system and into the field as quickly as possible."
Hallowell said the company hoped to have a unit ready for the field within six months.
Improvised explosives have killed and wounded hundreds of American service members since the insurgency began two years ago. The military has tried various ways to protect its people: It's put more armor on vehicles, improved training, issued thousands of electronic jammers to foil detonation by cell phones and other remote-control devices, and increased overhead surveillance of some of the most dangerous areas.
The measures have made a difference, according to military officials. Thirty percent to 40 percent of hidden bombs now are found before they explode, and casualty rates per explosion have been reduced by 45 percent since April 2004, according to military records.
However, insurgents have responded by simply planting more bombs. According to the military, the use of makeshift explosives has increased threefold over the same period, with attacks now averaging 35 per day.
Statistics compiled by the Web site Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which bases its figures on Pentagon news releases, show that improvised explosives killed 36 U.S. soldiers in June and 33 in May, the two highest months since January, when IEDs killed 29 soldiers. As of Tuesday, IEDs have killed 15 American soldiers in July.
"The enemy is adapting all the time, and is always moving on, looking for ways to beat us," Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the Joint IED Defeat Task Force, which is charged with reducing the threat from the explosives, said in a recent interview. "He adapts. He watches what we're doing, watches what our reaction is."
During Senate testimony last month, Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said that what American forces need "is a way to set off a blasting cap from a distance."
Research into "directed-energy" weapons such as those that Ionatron and Alliant produce appears to hold the most promise. Still, military officials and analysts said there were no easy answers.
"There have been a lot of responses, but I don't think there is a solution," said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site with information on security issues. "It's a moving target."
Even as Votel and other military officials are quick to say no technology will be a cure-all, the Pentagon is searching anyway.
Last spring, the Pentagon called for industry proposals and got 818 responses. The IED task force is evaluating 32 of them and could issue contracts for the most promising ones as early as the end of July, said Bridges, the task force spokesman.
Bridges said not to expect a quick fix.
"We're talking months, not weeks, for something we can put our hands on," he said.
Even if a silver bullet could be found, the increasing use of suicide car bombs in Iraq presents an even more intractable problem.
"It is very difficult to defeat a suicide bomber," Votel said. "When you've got someone who's committed to killing themselves ... I'm not sure we've got a machine that can read his mind and detect that."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.