With Iraqi insurgents building ever-more powerful homemade bombs, the Pentagon is finalizing plans to put a high-level general in charge of a new task force that will try to harness the expertise of the CIA, FBI, businesses and academics to combat the guerrillas’ most lethal weapon.
The Pentagon has devoted two years to finding ways to combat the makeshift bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Yet in the view of some senior generals, the IED problem remains a low priority in Washington. “The field commanders are saying: ‘This country can put a man on the moon. Why can’t it solve this problem?’ ” said one senior Defense official, who requested anonymity.
The officials said some military leaders -- such as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East -- have been pushing for a more focused, government-wide effort to address the largest threat facing U.S. troops in Iraq.
In the last six months, more than 60% of U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq have been the result of IEDs. The Pentagon has announced that 96 U.S. service members died in Iraq in October, the fourth-deadliest month for troops since the war began in March 2003. And experts are warning that the improvised explosives are likely to be a large problem for U.S. forces for years to come, not only in Iraq but also Afghanistan.
Under the plans, the new task force would be led by an active-duty three-star general or admiral, or a retired four-star officer. The budget has not been determined. Pentagon officials said the plans were in their final stages and awaiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s approval.
A small task force launched in July 2004 and led by a one-star officer, Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, has been credited with developing various technologies to combat the IED threat, such as equipping soldiers with electronic devices to detonate the makeshift bombs before they can damage U.S. military convoys. The task force has an annual budget of about $1.2 billion.
Yet the insurgents have been able to build bigger, more powerful bombs capable of shredding the armor of military vehicles and decimating 5-ton trucks.
Some military officials complain that the Pentagon has made little progress in getting the White House to pressure agencies such as the CIA, FBI and Department of Energy to devote more resources and full-time personnel to the anti-IED effort. One difficulty they cite is that a one-star general tends to wield little influence in the government hierarchy.
“It’s just amazing how long it takes for the bureaucracy to seriously tackle an issue, when some things should happen lickety-split,” said a second senior Defense official.
The Pentagon officials interviewed for this article insisted on anonymity because the details of the new task force had not been finalized. A spokesman for Abizaid declined to discuss the general’s concerns about Washington’s efforts to deal with IEDs.
But the spokesman, Maj. Matt McLaughlin of U.S. Central Command, said Abizaid “has a sense of urgency dealing with IEDs, and addressing their threat is one of our top command priorities.”
Some Pentagon officials and outside experts have questioned why the Bush administration has not launched an effort like the nationwide Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, to deal with the IED threat.
Such a venture, which would require a sustained push by the White House, could require tens of billions of dollars and the focused efforts of the government’s military and intelligence community. But many experts applauded the Pentagon proposals to upgrade the IED task force.
“Stars on the shoulder equals credibility of task,” said one defense consultant who works on IED issues. “An elevated task force means that it will have more access to choice personnel and increased resources.”
A larger budget would also enable the Pentagon to increase its research grants to universities to develop new technology, such as sensors that would allow U.S. troops to detect explosive devices from a distance.
The Army first created an office to deal with the IED threat in fall 2003, soon after Iraqi insurgents began systematically attacking U.S. convoys with crude roadside bombs, sometimes as rudimentary as an artillery shell hidden in an animal carcass.
Last year, the Pentagon built on the Army effort by creating Votel’s task force. Besides researching new technology to deal with IEDs, Votel’s group has had some success in improving the armor on military vehicles and developing avoidance tactics.
“Between the increase in armor and the changes in tactics, techniques and procedures that we’ve employed, the number of attacks -- IED attacks -- that have [killed or wounded troops] has gone down,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing.
“That said, there are more overall IED attacks by the insurgents, and we are working on that problem,” Pace said.
At times, the Pentagon’s technological responses to the weapons have created problems.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan, who commands all air forces within Central Command, recently told reporters that jammers U.S. troops have been given to prevent insurgents from detonating IEDs with cellphones or garage-door openers often interfere with the signal on soldiers’ hand-held radios. That has led troops to turn off the jammers when they use their radios.
In recent months, the Pentagon has tried to adopt a longer-term approach to the IED threat. The U.S. military will be fighting insurgencies for decades, many Pentagon officials say, and troops need more than technological solutions to deal with the weapons employed by guerrillas.
To this end, the Pentagon’s Office of Naval Research began a project this year aimed at gaining a greater understanding of the insurgents who plant homemade bombs.
The naval office is soliciting help from the defense industry, as well as from experts in behavioral sciences and cultural anthropology, to develop strategies for defeating insurgents before they can plant bombs.
Some defense experts believe that the Pentagon’s plan to create a high-profile IED task force is a key step toward combating a weapon that insurgent forces will probably use against U.S. forces for years to come.
“This is an extremely difficult problem,” said Montgomery McFate of the Institute for Defense Analyses, who has worked as a consultant on Votel’s task force. “Just look at Northern Ireland. The British encountered IEDs for 30 years, and they were never able to satisfactorily solve the problem.”