Innovative tools advance fight against IEDs

U.S. steps up effort to combat 'thinking enemy'

Improvised explosive devices come in myriad forms. But the greatest threat to U.S. and coalition soldiers in Afghanistan are ones triggered by command wires and pressure plates buried underground or concealed beneath rocks and debris. These victim-operated IEDs signify a departure from the war in Iraq, where homemade bombs and booby traps have reached a higher evolutionary level and are most often detonated from a distance by using radio or cell phone signals.

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According to the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), attacking this less sophisticated but nonetheless deadly enemy capability has emerged as a top priority now that the bulk of the fighting — and the strategic emphasis — is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan. During the coming months, the Defense Department expects al Qaeda in Afghanistan to methodically upgrade its IEDs to match the Iraqi models, with a greater emphasis on remote electronic triggering. To beat them, officials say, DOD must become more flexible and field new countermeasures at a more aggressive pace.

“This is a thinking enemy able to adapt and do it innovatively,” said Mitch Howell, a retired Army colonel who is now JIEDDO’s deputy director of rapid acquisition and technology. “Many of them know how to take their existing resources — however modest by our standards — and turn them into weapons. Unlike us, they don’t have a large bureaucratic acquisition system to deal with, and we have to be able to respond to that speed. Everything we do is being watched on a daily or even hourly basis, and their knowledge base is growing. And potential enemies around the world are watching.”

“I’m looking for industry to find game changers,” Howell added. “Ninety to 95 percent of all IEDs are initiated with some sort of blasting cap requiring power. If industry could build a system to help us reliably predetonate or neutralize these caps, we’d buy a bunch of those tomorrow, or yesterday if we could. We’re also looking for better optics to do certain things. We don’t just want a small enhancement with a 2 to 5 percent improvement; we want a real, robust capability. We don’t want science projects or half-baked ideas. But we will work with anything offering 50 to 75 percent effectiveness.”

Air war strategy established

Recent success stories in the counter-victim-operated IED fight include canine teams trained to detect homemade explosives and aircraft-deployed, ground-penetrating radars used in change detection, which is the art of spotting places where disturbed ground could indicate a newly planted IED, Howell said.

Desert Owl is one such radar system; Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Rader is another. Many of the airborne surveillance assets belong to Task Force ODIN, an Army aviation battalion whose name means observe, detect, identify and neutralize. Although Task Force ODIN operates unmanned aircraft, such as Hunter and Warrior-A, its most common platform is a variant of the Hawker Beechcraft King Air twin turboprop business aircraft configured for medium-altitude intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

Christian Keller, ODI product director at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors at Fort Monmouth, N.J., said Task Force ODIN operates about 20 King Airs in Afghanistan and another 20 in Iraq, and as many as 10 could be airborne at any given time. The unit also operates five Shorts 360s — retired commuter airliners — obtained for the Constant Hawk change detection effort. In general, Task Force ODIN aircraft are used to patrol major roads and supply routes in advance of ground movements. They scan the area with radars, full-motion electro-optical/infrared video and, in some cases, classified signals intelligence gear. The unit is also responsible for its ground data processing, exploitation and dissemination.

Task Force ODIN is unique in that its commander is an Army lieutenant colonel while its pilots and maintainers are a mix of uniformed military and civilian contractors. In some cases, the aircraft are Army owned and contractor operated. Keller said Avenge, based in Dulles, Va., is a major source of pilots. Another is Dynamic Aviation, a Bridgewater, Va.-based operator that acquired the Army’s entire fleet of unpressurized King Air 90s when they were retired from service several years ago. The Constant Hawk Shorts 360s are also privately owned. Keller said the ones in Afghanistan belong to Telford Aviation while the Iraq-based aircraft are the property of L-3 Communications, a defense contractor.

“The unique part is that [Task Force ODIN is] a collection of contractor and military providing the overall capability,” Keller said. “It’s the green-suiter working alongside the contractor, and it works very well. It’s relying on both. The key [is] the retired military pilots the contractors can hire; they’re very good at doing this mission, and some of them have been out there doing it from the very beginning. They become very adept, and you can incentivize them to stay on. We fly a lot, up to 400 hours a month per aircraft. Contracts are based on hours per month. Sometimes we go under, sometimes we go over. Recently, more and more aircraft are going to Afghanistan. We also anticipate the transition of Task Force ODIN to [the Army Intelligence and Security Command] and becoming more institutionalized.”

Frequency jammers deployed

The fight against radio-controlled IEDs is also gaining momentum, with the focus on one system in particular: the Duke frequency jammer produced by Syracuse Research of Syracuse, N.Y.

The Army has equipped its soldiers with more than 25,000 vehicle-mounted Duke systems since 2005, and the latest version, the Duke V3, was named one of last year’s top 10 greatest inventions at the Army Science Conference in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 28. Accelerated fielding of Duke V3 to Afghanistan has begun, and the system is being integrated aboard new mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that are heading to the war zone. The next phase is to deploy the new systems as rapidly as possible, said Lt. Col. Bruce Ryba, product manager of counter remote controlled IED electronic warfare (CREW).

“We’re at the tail end of the V3 upgrade, and as part of our Duke pure fleet strategy, we’re marrying it up with the draw down in Iraq and surge in Afghanistan,” Ryba said. “We’ve got to get the whole logistics structure in place so, by the end of next year in Afghanistan, December 2011, every vehicle that leaves a [forward operating base] will have Duke V3 aboard."

"Duke is comprised of two boxes and sits on a rack in the vehicle," he said. "It’s covering three primary bands — we’ll call them A, B and C. This is where all our threats are, where we do active and reactive jamming. Earlier systems like Warlock were active only and kept jamming until you turned it off. Duke does both — it has a receiver so it listens to the environment and learns from it when it detects something out of the ordinary.”

“Our goal was to make [Duke V3] as user-friendly as possible, and I believe we’ve accomplished that,” Ryba said. “Prior to leaving the wire, the soldier turns it on and leaves it on while he’s outside. It’s fully automatic; a light goes on when the system is reacting to a threat. At the moment, we’re integrated on 39 different vehicle types. Jamming our own radios is a continual challenge, and we’re working with the comms community to resolve it. Our guys can still transmit when the unit is on, but they can’t receive because we’re jamming the receiver in-band. The other issue is out-of-band interference, where we target a certain frequency.”

Ryba said his mission is to keep the Army’s jamming systems relevant as long as he can, or least until the next generation reaches initial operating capability. Enhancements to the Duke series are likely to include cleaner linear waveform generators and more efficient tower amplifiers, in addition to the integration of military-grade Global Positioning System devices in each unit. Reduced size and weight and increased power are other goals.

Personnel issues also stand to influence the CREW effort. The Army is in the midst of establishing the new 29-series electronic warfare officer career branch. Because the electronic warfare emphasis is on electronic attacks, it is considered fires based, and many new officer recruits are transfers from the field artillery branch.

“For the first time in the nine years we’ve been fighting this war, we’re ahead of the threat,” Ryba said. “When they put out [a remote-controlled IED], in a drop and pop, it’s just a receiver and explosive in a fake rock that they can put out on a road. When we’re able to jam them, we push them into using pressure plates and command wires, which makes it easier on our forces. We’re working closely with our [intelligence] people and do think the enemy is going to go on to other [triggering] means. Afghanistan is only 18 months behind Iraq in terms of infrastructure, so we’ve got to be prepared.”

About the Author

Paul Richfield is a contributing writer for Defense Systems magazine.

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