Army faces different IED foe in Afghanistan

Specialists will use electronic warfare to counter improvised explosive devices triggered by mechanical means

The counter-improvised explosive device challenge that soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan face has spurred a renewed emphasis on electronic warfare at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Sensors at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

“The Army is re-establishing itself in the [electronic warfare] business, and you’ll see a more integrated approach to dominating the battlespace,” said Michael Ryan, deputy project director of Project Manager Signals Warfare, which is one of the eight PMs at PEO IEW&S.

As part of that effort, the Army has created three new courses to train Army personnel to be electronic warfare officers. Such a military occupation specialty designation didn’t exist before, and ultimately, as many as 1,600 electronic warfare officers will receive training at Fort Sill, Okla.

Those new electronic warfare officers will replace 360 Navy personnel, who have been placed in theater and assigned to each Army battalion to be electronic warfare officers.

“We’re taking that role back from the Navy,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Ryba, product manager of Counter Remote Controlled IED Electronic Warfare (CREW), which is one of PEO IEW&S’s main electronic warfare programs. “We’re making those people organic to the Army.”

Those officers will have new challenges to meet in the near term, particularly as the fight intensifies in Afghanistan, where the IED threat differs from what warfighters experienced in Iraq.

“Iraq has a more modern communications infrastructure compared to Afghanistan,” Ryba said. In Afghanistan, "they don’t leverage modern technologies that are available, though in the future we think they could. The infrastructure is lagging by two to three years in Afghanistan, which leads us to believe that technology in Afghanistan will follow closely behind infrastructure.”

The more primitive communications infrastructure of Afghanistan means that enemies trigger IEDs primarily through mechanical means, such as wires or pressure plates, as opposed to enemies in Iraq, where radio-controlled IEDs have been more prevalent. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to address IEDs in Afghanistan, just different, though Ryba said it’s easier to stop mechanical threats.

“It’s a different threat that has to be attacked with different methods,” he said. “But we have caught up or are ahead of them with the technology they are using. In Afghanistan, we’re forcing them back to the wire or pressure plate, which are more manual methods that expose the insurgents.”

That exposure makes them visible to attack from counter-IED programs such as Task Force ODIN, which had success in Iraq and is being established in Afghanistan.

Counting on CREW

The success of Task Force ODIN and electronic warfare efforts such as the deployment of 40,000 CREW systems in Iraq has also dramatically changed the defense against IEDs in that country, too.

In 2005, 90 percent of the IED threats in Iraq came from radio-controlled bombs. That figure is now 20 percent. Ryba attributes that drop directly to the three primary CREW systems designed to jam radio signals: Duke, Vehicular Receiver Jammer (VRJ) and Multi-Mission Broadband Jammer (MMBJ).

“The total number of IEDs are up, but radio-controlled ones have gone down to 20 percent,” he said. “We have pushed them away from their comfort zone. We’re not trading problems; we’re pushing them away from one threat, and we know where they’re going to.”

Namely, the enemy is moving to wire-tripped and pressure plate IEDs. That situation brings other PMs to fore that focus on those types of threats, such as Product Manager IED Defeat/Protect Force at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J, which employs mine rollers and directed-energy systems against IEDs.

CREW jammers have also become more versatile in that older systems could only target a single specific device. “As we would defeat that device, the insurgents would move to new [remote-controlled] devices we couldn’t control with that particular system,” Ryba said. “Now we have systems that cover" all remote-controlled devices.

The Prophet also plays a role. It is a ground-based intelligence-gathering capability. While CREW plays the electronic attack role, Prophet plays the electronic surveillance role, said Lt. Col. Jim Ross, product manager of Prophet, which PM Signals Warfare oversees.

PEO IEW&S is meshing capabilities as part of a greater integration effort that will move away from single boxes and solutions that create a spectrum nightmare, Ryan said.

“There’s not going to be a next-generation CREW; it will be" next-generation electronic warfare, he said, adding that the Army will continue to improve CREW and Prophet until integrated systems are ready to go. In fact, the latest version of Duke will be installed on the new mine-resistant all-terrain vehicles and are specifically designed for the terrain of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Prophet is getting a satellite relay capability to augment line-of-sight transmissions.

“We’ll go from a single jammer in CREW and a single listening box in Prophet to something more integrated and multifunctional,” Ryan added. “They will share power amps, receivers and antennas. They will provide force protection as well as targeting.”

The goal is to better deal with new technologies that commercial electronics manufacturers are cranking out. Some of those technologies, such as wireless communications, can be used as part of a weapon.

“Wireless networks, cyber networks...these are all expanded threat situations that go beyond CREW,” Ryan said.

Electronic warfare officers envision a scenario in which the enemy uses the same communications network as the civilian population. “In that event, we would have to balance getting what we need and not disrupt the entire network,” Ross said.

The Army also aspires to develop an organic airborne electronic attack capability as part of its electronic warfare toolset. Presently, the Navy provides that airborne mission via the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.

“That mission will shift to the Army and be part of our goal to make [electronic warfare] a core competency of the Army,” said Ryan, adding that PM Signals Warfare and PM Unmanned Aircraft Systems are working jointly to put that capability on a UAV, most likely the RQ-7 Shadow.

In addition, it is hoped that next-generation electronic warfare will be able to perform communications while jamming. “That is extremely difficult to do right now,” Ryan said. “When we share the same spectrum, we have to make a choice.”

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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