Surge of danger for U.S. troops

Despite billions spent to combat it, the threat from roadside bombs in Iraq has gone from bad to worse, according to a Pentagon source.

Published January 22, 2007 12:44PM (EST)

As 21,500 more young Americans begin deploying to Iraq on President Bush's orders, U.S. troops there are facing an escalating threat from improvised explosive devices. The devices, commonly called IEDs or roadside bombs, continue to plague U.S. military operations in Iraq, despite an ongoing multibillion-dollar effort by the Pentagon to counter the threat. And there is growing pessimism among U.S. soldiers and military analysts that the scourge of IEDs can actually be overcome.

The trend lines of the problem have gone from bad to worse. During the first two years of the war, IEDs accounted for just over 20 percent of all U.S. soldier deaths. Over the past year, that percentage has been about 50 percent, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. In addition, half of all U.S. soldier injuries in Iraq are caused by IEDs.

In 2005, as the insurgency in Iraq grew, about 50 percent of all attacks against U.S. and coalition forces were from IEDs. By late 2006, that percentage surged to about 75 percent. In October, there were an average of 82 IED attacks per day against U.S. forces -- a record high for the war. Salon obtained the late-2006 data from a source who works directly on the IED problem for the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), the agency set up by the Pentagon to fight the problem. The source asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

IEDs are the insurgents' weapon of choice for two reasons: They are effective, and they allow the insurgents to attack U.S. forces with minimal risk to themselves. Although the Pentagon has spent billions on "up-armoring" vehicles and deploying various technologies -- including electronic jammers to prevent detonation of IEDs -- the military's efforts are "having absolutely no effect," the source told Salon. "The trend line hasn't changed one iota," he added, calling the military's track record of protecting U.S. troops from IEDs "criminal."

In an interview, Brig. Gen. Dan Allyn, deputy director of operations for the JIEDDO, defended the Pentagon's efforts to combat the IED threat and asserted that some progress has been made. But several military experts, including officers who have served in Iraq, say that the Pentagon has not been able to effectively counter the deadly devices. Moreover, the IED problem may well continue to grow in magnitude. The potency of the threat continues to force the U.S. military to spend heavily on protective efforts that are often contradictory and cumbersome. Meanwhile, insurgents are using larger numbers of a deadlier type of IED, known as an "explosively formed projectile" (EFP), that can pierce almost any type of armor.

There are many reasons why the United States has met with disaster in Iraq. At the top of the list: terrible postwar planning, lack of knowledge of Iraqi/Arab culture and the failure of America's occupying forces to control Iraq's oil sector. But on the most basic tactical level, America has been drubbed in Iraq because it hasn't been able to counter the IEDs.

They are essentially the same weapon that Lawrence of Arabia used against the Turks during the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918. In his memoir, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," published in 1922, T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who helped lead the revolt, wrote that his use of roadside bombs made traveling "an uncertain terror for the enemy." Back then, Lawrence and his men targeted trains; today, hidden explosives are being used by insurgents to target the U.S. military's Humvees and other vehicles.

Their deadly effectiveness can be seen on almost any day of the week. Consider Dec. 6, the same day that the Iraq Study Group released its long-awaited report offering suggestions to the Bush administration about what it should do in Iraq. On that day, 11 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq. Seven of them were killed by IEDs.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the military's anti-IED effort is the increased application of armor to its vast fleet of vehicles in Iraq and Kuwait. That armor helps protect soldiers, but it has other, deleterious effects: It makes the vehicles heavier, slower and less stable. It increases the wear and tear on tires and other parts, and increases fuel consumption. That increased fuel load means that the U.S. military must use more trucks to import fuel from Kuwait. In turn, the increased number of fuel trucks provides more targets for insurgents and their IEDs. Furthermore, the added armor has made military vehicles more prone to accidents. As reported by the Dayton Daily News last year, the M1114, the up-armored Humvee used by the military in Iraq, has been involved in dozens of fatal rollover accidents.

Improved explosive devices have also forced the U.S. military to deploy dozens of huge IED-handling trucks, called the Buffalo -- a 32-foot-long, rubber-tired vehicle equipped with a remote-operated steel arm for handling ordnance. The vehicle has proved effective in dealing with IEDs, but it's expensive, weighs more than 14 Toyota Camrys and gets -- at best -- about four miles per gallon.

There is other fallout from the IED problem. The military has found that jammers used to prevent IEDs from being detonated through the use of walkie-talkies, cellphones and other devices are, in some cases, also jamming its own communications. That has forced the military to sink more money into defense contracts for developing software and devices that allow the jammers to function while still allowing soldiers to use their radios and other communications gear. On a personnel level, the IED threat has forced the military to equip individual soldiers with bulkier, heavier body armor.

There is also psychological fallout from IEDs. "They generate fear," says G.I. Wilson, a former Marine Corps colonel who served 28 years on active duty (including 15 months fighting in Iraq in 2004 and 2005) and has written extensively on insurgent warfare. The constant threat of being hit by an IED "creates heightened states of arousal which makes soldiers react in abnormal ways. They can't think clearly because they are all jazzed up," he explains.

Fear and frustration apparently fueled atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. Marines in Iraq. In December 2006, four U.S. Marines were charged with murder after they reportedly went on a rampage in November 2005 in Haditha, leaving two dozen Iraqi civilians dead. A key part of the Haditha story is that just before the Marines from Kilo Company allegedly began shooting the civilians, their four-vehicle convoy was hit by an IED. That attack killed a member of Kilo Company's team, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. The Marines had been stationed in Haditha for weeks, constantly facing the IED threat. The insurgents were getting ever bolder in planting their bombs -- sometimes planting new IEDs just after the Marines had passed through an area.

The psychological impact of the IED threat in fact played a part in one of the worst atrocities in the history of the U.S. military: the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. In the weeks before Lt. William Calley and the other soldiers killed as many as 500 civilians in the Vietnamese village, their company had been hit several times by mines and booby traps.

IEDs also increase distrust between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians -- and that decreases the likelihood that the U.S. will be able to mount an effective counterinsurgency effort, which requires effective interaction with and intelligence gathering among the local population.

Not only is the number of IEDs rising, but the insurgents are also using more sophisticated explosives. Those include increasing numbers of deadly "explosively formed projectiles."

EFPs are sometimes referred to as "super-IEDs." They are simple to manufacture and therefore can be built in almost any moderately equipped machine shop. Here's how they work: The heat and shockwave created by the detonation of explosives inside a shallow metal tube propels a metal plate mounted at the front of the weapon. That plate -- usually steel or copper -- forms a molten metallic "dart" that travels at speeds of up 2,000 meters per second and can penetrate 4-inch-thick armor at a range of up to 100 meters. That means that not even the M1A1 Abrams tank -- the backbone of America's armored infantry -- can withstand a direct hit by an EFP. It also means that EFPs are more likely to kill or maim soldiers.

And here's the worst of it: According to the source who works for the Pentagon on the IED problem, the number of EFPs encountered by U.S. troops in Iraq has more than doubled over the past year, going from about 20 per month to about 50 per month.

The type of EFPs being used against the U.S. military in Iraq were developed by Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Military experts have said they believe that Iranian-made EFPs are now being used against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Asked about the EFP threat during a phone interview in early January, Brig. Gen. Allyn said he was "not going to get into enemy tactics ... We are focused on countering that threat and helping forward commanders and defeating the networks that employ those systems," he said.

Over the past three years, Allyn's IED agency has become one of the fastest-growing bureaucracies in the U.S. military. Now numbering more than 500 employees, the secretive agency has already spent some $5 billion, and billions more are on the way. Allyn says that the military has been working to increase the amount of IED-specific training for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and to help commanders develop tactics that will reduce the numbers of IED attacks. But according to the Boston Globe last June, a report commissioned by the Pentagon found that the anti-IED effort was "poorly focused" and that a better strategy "would focus on preventing Iraqis from becoming involved in the insurgency." It also found that the U.S. military's main response to the IED problem has been to emphasize "technical solutions which have proven insufficient."

Insufficient or not, the military's push to find a technical solution has meant big money for defense contractors. Last year, the military bought 3,800 electronic jammers designed to defeat IEDs, each of which cost $79,000, from defense giant General Dynamics. Another company, electronics maker EDO Corp., has supplied more than 4,000 IED jammers, known as Warlocks, to the military -- at a cost of some $200,000 apiece. Those two companies have pulled in a total of more than $400 million in IED-related contracts.

Allyn refused to comment on the number of jammers that have been deployed or the amount spent on them, citing operational security. "Putting that information into the public domain," he said, "is akin to, during a football game, inviting the defensive captain to join your [offensive] huddle." But Allyn also said that his agency is having success because fewer IED attacks are resulting in death or injury to American troops. Today in Iraq, he said, about one in five IED attacks results in a death or injury for U.S. forces. "While we are not satisfied, that's an improvement over what it was two years ago, when it was about one in three," he said.

Still, the number of IED attacks has doubled over the past two years, says the source who works for the Pentagon on the problem. And that increase in attacks has meant larger numbers of overall casualties from IEDs, he says -- a fact that Allyn ignored in claiming that IED casualty numbers have "remained relatively constant" over that time period.

For Wilson, the former Marine colonel, the military has engaged in a lot of "money shoveling" when it comes to the IED problem. "Their solution is to throw money at it," he says. "Which makes everybody in D.C. happy while, at the same time, our people are dying in Baghdad." Wilson believes the U.S. military must push for more control over Iraq's borders to stop the flow of Iranian-made explosives and other weapons into the country. He also contends that the U.S. military needs to better control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which he believes are being used as routes to smuggle arms.

One potential way to address the IED threat that has not been tried, according to military experts: constant, manned, aerial surveillance of main convoy routes and other thoroughfares with light, single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft. This approach -- advocated by Wilson, as well as military veterans like Greg Wilcox, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Vietnam veteran and frequent critic of the Pentagon -- would allow ground-based commanders to be in constant communication with a member of their combat team circling overhead in a small aircraft. The spotters would look for suspicious activity and alert ground forces as potential IEDs were being installed. Wilcox and others call this the equivalent of putting a "police car in the sky." Proponents of this approach contend that manned aircraft would be fairly inexpensive to equip and could be deployed quickly.

But Wilcox, Wilson and others say that the military has resisted using this approach. (Allyn refused to comment directly on the manned aircraft concept.)

In the coming weeks, Congress will consider an emergency spending bill that would provide an additional $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (IEDs are also becoming more common in Afghanistan.) That spending bill includes $2.5 billion more for the anti-IED effort. Much of that $2.5 billion will be spent on additional high-technology equipment like jammers and machines that can allegedly detect explosives.

While the Pentagon continues its spending spree, the skills that made Lawrence successful -- complete command of the Arabic language, deep understanding of Arab culture and an appreciation of the needs of the local population -- are likely to remain in critically short supply among U.S. forces in Iraq. And IEDs are likely to continue to proliferate. Wilson says that Bush's decision to concentrate the escalation effort on Baghdad means that "we'll see a dramatic increase in the use of IEDs." Those devices will end up killing and wounding many more American soldiers, Wilson predicts, and as the casualties continue mounting, the insurgents will "get U.S. troops to overreact," he says. "That's exactly what they want. And we are going to give it to them."

By Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

MORE FROM Robert Bryce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Iraq War Middle East