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US Seeks New Ways To Fight Roadside Bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan

US soldiers check an armoured vehicle moments after it was damaged by a roadside bomb
The U.S. Defense Department is in the midst of an effort to find new ways to fight roadside bombs, which have accounted for more than half of the U.S. casualties suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. The effort mainly involves technology, but also includes some enhanced human capabilities.

The announcements come almost daily, and they read like this one from earlier this month: "The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sgt. James A. Sherrill, 27, of Ekron, Kentucky, died April 3, in Bayji, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his military vehicle."

"Improvised Explosive Device" is what the military calls roadside bombs, and like nearly everything in the U.S. Defense Department the term is reduced to initials, IED

"We are looking at just about any possible technology that will enable us to either neutralize, defeat, predict, prevent, [or] mitigate the use of IEDs," said Richard Bridges.

Richard Bridges is the spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Improvised Explosive Devices, which is working intensively to reduce the casualty toll from the crude but effective weapons used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Bridges cannot say much about the details of new steps being taken to defeat the bombs, but he says they include everything from improved training, to heavier armor on vehicles, to a variety of technologies. Officials have said the technologies include electronic jamming to disrupt detonation signals sent by radio or mobile phone, but Mr. Bridges won't say much about that.

"Are we looking for jamming potentials? Absolutely," he said. "Am I going to go much beyond that? No!"

The effort to eliminate the IED threat has been frustrating. The bombs are small, easily hidden and difficult to detect. They have been hidden under rocks, in vehicles and even in the carcasses of dead animals. They explode in crowded marketplaces, at the gates to U.S. military camps and along remote sections of highway as U.S. or Iraqi government convoys pass by.

The frustration led to what Mr. Bridges describes as a different approach the Defense Department is using on this subject in its dealings with private industry.

"The government has traditionally in the past always thought that we knew what we wanted," said Richard Bridges. "So we would tell people what we wanted and put a request for proposals out there. And then people would try to build whatever it was we said we wanted. With the IED thread, it's incredibly adaptive, shifting and dangerous. We decided to take a step back from that particular approach and just go after what kind of capabilities might be out there, what other things are available within the industrial base that might have applicability to our fight against the IED threat."

The government is now analyzing 818 proposals it received from a variety of companies, but Mr. Bridges says the details are secret.

Mr. Bridges says the effort to fight Improvised Explosive Devices is backed by a $1.6 billion budget, including tens of millions of dollars set aside to rapidly deliver useful technology to U.S. troops in the field, who face the bombs every day.

"I would say that if it's off-the-shelf [already manufactured], it will be in the field in a matter of days, if not hours," he said. "If we find something that's really looking promising and that is currently available and we know all the properties of it, and things like that, and we have somehow overlooked it in the past, we have money available to buy it and ship it immediately."

Mr. Bridges says some progress has already been made in fighting the roadside bombs. He credits more help from Iraqi civilians since the election on January 30, some new technology that has already been deployed and improved training to teach U.S. soldiers to be more observant and how to respond when they see something out of the ordinary that could be a bomb.

Mr. Bridges reports that in the last year, U.S. casualties from Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reduced by 45 percent, even though the number of bombs has gone up. And officials say in recent months the number of bombs has begun to decline, and the bombs themselves seem to be more crude in their design. Still, they can be extremely deadly, and the Defense Department is seeking all available help to fight them, and to reduce the number of those death announcements involving U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.