U.S. Military Learns to Fight Deadliest Weapons; IED’s

Posted: July 29, 2010 in MILITARY, NEWS
Photo: Tom Schierlitz

The tactics of today’s insurgent bombmakers are the product of a long-simmering melting pot of global terrorism.
Photo: Tom Schierlitz; IED models: Based on actual bombs constructed by Prop House Weapons Specialists Ltd.

One afternoon at the end of March, inside a cinder-block bunker on a small island in Chesapeake Bay, Scott Schoenfeld is waiting to blow something up. On a video monitor in front of him is a grainy image of a rusty steel box about 20 yards away. Inside is an explosive charge and an experimental target. A big, soft-spoken computational scientist wearing a black polo shirt, jeans, and wraparound sunglasses, Schoenfeld is one of the chief armor researchers for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or Jieddo, the Pentagon agency dedicated to combating IEDs. He won’t tell me how much explosive he’s using today, or what, exactly, the target is. The charge is modeled on an IED discovered overseas, and the details remain sensitive, if not classified. “We’re trying not to give anyone ideas they don’t already have,” he says. But he will acknowledge that the charge is lethal. “Unprotected, it would kill many people. Pounds of high explosive are involved.” He hands me a pair of ear defenders. “The boom,” he says, “will be rather large.”

Outside, a siren blows three times. Standing at a rack of instruments in the corner of the bunker, the range operator announces, “Reset. Arm. Three. Two. One. Fi— “

On the monitor, a cloud of gray smoke puffs from the box, which is open at one end, and then a fraction of a second later comes the boom — a sharp crack loud enough to be heard through cinder block and ear defenders, drowning out the conclusion of the countdown. A shock wave shakes the walls of the bunker.

 

Improvised Explosive Devices in Action
From 2006 to 2009 there were more than 13,000 IED attacks on coalition forces in Iraq.

After the all-clear, Schoenfeld leads the way outside. Nothing remains inside the testing chamber but a burnt smell and the charred wooden fragments of the framework that held the charge and its target. The 6-inch-thick steel-plate walls of the chamber are as ragged as wet cardboard, buckled and pockmarked by the blasts and shrapnel from hundreds of tests. Schoenfeld and his team have conducted experiments here at the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground for six years, and their research — which has contributed to the creation of everything from the first emergency armor kits for Humvees to the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle — is among the most successful sponsored by Jieddo. Schoenfeld has held weekly videoconferences with troops in the field for several years. There was a time he’d get to know soldiers only to have them sign off from a video chat and never return. “It was very sad,” he says. “The output of these devices was devastating.” These days, things are different. He shows me an 8-inch-thick block of military-grade steel — “rolled homogeneous armor,” he calls it — with a 2-inch-wide hole blasted all the way through by shrapnel from a test IED charge. New armored vehicles can take damage like this, Schoenfeld says, and the occupants can tell him about it on video afterward. “I get people standing in front of holes like these, smiling,” he tells me. “They say, ‘Yeah: I got back out and shot the guy that did this.’”

Jieddo was formally signed into existence by the Department of Defense just four years ago, in February 2006. But it has its origins in a personal request written by the chief of US Central Command, John Abizaid, to his superiors at the Pentagon in mid-2004. As the number of casualties caused by IEDs in Iraq mushroomed, he insisted that the only solution was a “Manhattan Project-like” marshaling of scientific and military resources. Since then, Jieddo has gathered a staff of more than 3,600 government employees and contractors, established projects with all four military services and every intelligence agency, and spent more than $17 billion.

In Iraq, Jieddo has succeeded in drastically reducing the carnage caused by IEDs. At the start of the war in 2003, every device that troops encountered resulted in, on average, the injury or death of at least one member of the coalition forces; by 2009, insurgents had to put down nine IEDs to cause a single casualty. But even as the number of attacks on coalition forces in Iraq dwindles, IEDs remain the principal killer of US troops in combat. In Afghanistan — where the number of IED incidents doubled in 2009 and caused 75 percent of casualties in some areas — Jieddo faces a new generation of more ingenious, and bigger, bombs. Meanwhile, the first US troops to be killed in the Philippines in seven years died when their convoy was hit by an IED last September. Even excluding those in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were nearly 3,300 IED incidents around the world in 2009. US troops, once expected to battle Russian tanks and Chinese missiles, now face a long war against a new enemy, one whose weapon of choice is the improvised bomb. “The IED as a tactical weapon is a condition of our workplace in the armed forces,” says Michael Oates, Jieddo’s director. “We believe it will be a persistent threat.”

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