Pentagon Still Playing Catch-Up with Bomb Makers: Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team Leaders Say Their Technology Is Behind the Curve

Article excerpt

The U.S. military's cadre of bomb disposal technicians needs lighter equipment, the ability to detect explosives at stand-off distances and their sensors consolidated into one handheld device.

But most of all, they want to feel that their technology is putting them one step ahead of the insurgents who are planting the improvised explosive devices that are wounding and killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Instead--when it comes to tools that can defeat IEDs--the Defense Department has been playing a game of catch-up for the past 10 years.

"Our acquisition process inside the Department of Defense does not have the agility to keep up with our enemy's threat," said Capt. Dan Coleman of the Navy expeditionary warfare division and a former officer at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

Requirements for defeating, detecting or protecting troops from IEDs must go through a bureaucratic approval process, the joint capability integration development system, fight for funding and then--after a long wait--the explosive ordnance disposal teams finally receive what they asked for, he said.

By that time, "our enemy is going to be three or four more ... cycles ahead of that solution that we have just fielded to the war fighter," Coleman said at a National Defense Industrial Association-Explosive Ordnance Disposal Memorial Foundation conference in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

The number of EOD technicians is relatively small--about 5,500 spread out across the four services. Most of them "self-select" to join the units. Their deeds have been celebrated in the Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker.

While they are few in number, their impact on the battlefield is crucial, said Army Col. Marue "MO" Quick, chief of the EOD and humanitarian mine action at the office of the secretary of defense's special operations/low intensity conflict division.

IEDs were the weapon of choice in Iraq, and the tactic has made its way to Afghanistan. In both wars, the majority of combat deaths and injuries are a result of these bombs, she said.

Meanwhile, in the 12-month period from May 2010 to this year's conference, 20 bomb technicians lost their lives in combat, and 94 were wounded, Quick said. EOD technicians have responded to some 112,000 calls for their sendees in Iraq and 45,000 in Afghani-stan, she added.

While Quick, Coleman and other speakers said the long wars have resulted in EOD forces being the best equipped and most experienced since the specialty emerged during World War II, there is still a constant need to keep pace with new tactics being employed by the bomb makers.

"While we have made tremendous progress and significant improvements in equipment and training over the last 10 years, we must remain vigilant and focused in staying in front of the dynamic and evolving nature of our enemy's threat," Quick said.

Coleman put it in more blunt terms: "We can't go back to shooting behind the duck in terms of technology to defeat this IED threat."

The research and development community needs to get ahead of the curve and look at the potential ways enemies will use bombs in the future As a Navy officer, for example, Coleman said he worries about submersible IEDs, a threat that has not emerged, but could someday.

"In the last 10 years we have come from being underfunded, under-resourced, and under-equipped to catching up to the fight," said Coleman. But that is what it is: a game of catch-up, he added.

Col. Dick Larry, chief of the adaptive Counter-IED/EOD solutions division at the Department of the Army headquarters, said, "Our adversary changes quicker than we do."

An insurgent "has no bureaucracy. He can do things much quicker than I can do. Whenever I come up with a new jammer, I've got to look three moves ahead. …