Bombs and other so-called improvised explosive devices planted by insurgent forces pose one of the gravest threats to the safety of U.S. soldiers on patrol in Iraq. The military says it is making progress in thwarting the danger, even using some new technology. But some members of Congress wonder if it is enough.
At least 16 of the 40 or so U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq in January were the victims of what the military calls IED's, improvised explosive devices handcrafted and planted by insurgents opposed to the coalition presence.
In the last six months of last year, about 60 other U.S. soldiers were killed in bomb attacks. The overall death toll from such attacks represents more than 20 percent of all U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq.
Nevertheless, defense officials insist they are making progress in protecting soldiers from terrorist-type bombings. Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker put it this way during a recent Congressional appearance: "We have taken some major moves there that are paying off in my view right now."
But General Schoomaker was reluctant to discuss openly some of the technological measures being taken by the Army to thwart bomb attacks.
His insistence on keeping such details secret drew criticism from Representative Gene Taylor, a Democrat from the southern state of Mississippi. Mr. Taylor wanted to know why the Army would not disclose how many military vehicles were being equipped with radio frequency jamming devices designed to stop terrorists from triggering bombs by remote control. "I really fear that the reason the number is classified is not so the Iraqi insurgents don't know, it's so the American people don't know," he said.
The Congressman went on to claim Iraqi insurgents had learned that "if they keep pressing the detonator button enough times, they can destroy a U.S. military vehicle that does not have an electronic bomb jammer."
Representative Taylor claimed the number of vehicles equipped with the devices is very small. "It is miniscule and I know it, you know it and the Iraqi insurgents know it, and for $10,000, again per vehicle I'm told you're testing something right now, that is absolute [a small amount]," he said.
General Schoomaker again declined to provide any details in a public Congressional committee hearing.
But other military officials say radio frequency jammers are just one part of a comprehensive effort to combat the threat posed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq. They say improved tactics, techniques and procedures are helping mitigate the risk, not just new technology.
In fact, Pentagon sources indicate most of the bombs planted by insurgents in Iraq have NOT been remotely controlled, only about 20 percent of them. In other words, jamming devices would not be effective in most cases.
They also point out most bomb attacks are themselves failures. In the last six months of last year, defense sources say, there were just over 1,100 bomb attacks. Only 49 of them produced casualties.
Still, the military is working on technological solutions to combat improvised explosive devices and other related threats to U.S. troops. Millions of dollars are being spent in the effort, including more than $26 million for an electronic countermeasure device so secret that all VOA could learn was its exotic name, "Warlock Orange."