Permissible Arms

Boom Goes the Dynamite

Posted in afghanistan, us defense, us military by Karaka on 6 November 2009

I meant to do this on Thursday, but Thursday was a sucking void of meetings followed by the whiskey applied to ameliorate said meetings, so instead it’s getting done today. Let’s talk about bombs, and the things that stop them.

MRAPS, courtesy "Afghanistan My Last Tour"

Rex/Afghanistan My Last Tour

In the latter part of last month, MRAPs–mine resistant ambush-protected all terrain vehicles–were shipped out to Afghanistan as part of Secdef Gates’ push to overhaul the design to be more appropriate to Afghanistan compared with this version’s predecessor in Iraq. The AFG version is leaner, a bit thinner, designed to traverse the more narrow roads that cross the AFG terrain. At half a million dollars each, these high-tech armoured vehicles were important and expensive:

With an independent suspension system designed for off-road mobility, the M-ATV is built specifically to navigate Afghanistan’s rugged landscape.

“The M-ATV really answers some of the challenges of the terrain, high altitudes and the real unevenness of a lot of the terrain out there,” Haggerty said. The M-ATV seats four passengers and one gunner, and features an armor system with a “V” shaped hull engineered to protect occupants from enemy attack.

“It looks like a modified, huge, heavy-duty Jeep,” said Anthony Deluca, the Kandahar site lead for the mine-resistant, ambush-protected, or MRAP, program. “It’s got very good suspension systems, and everyone raves about how well it functions in the field.”

While some original MRAP vehicles may weigh nearly 60,000 pounds, the M-ATV weighs about 25,000 pounds, including standard equipment and fuel.

But the real test of these modified MRAPs is just beginning. As Danger Room reports, less sophisticated IEDs can do as much or more damage as their more advanced cousins in Iraq:

Afghanistan’s low-tech, relatively primitive bombs might be even harder to stop than Iraq’s comparatively sophisticated improvised explosives. The Pentagon is sinking almost a billion dollars into new tools to stop this dumbed-down threat, like sensors and software that can detect minute changes on the ground, along with dozens of other initiatives.

It’s a particularly urgent need: Between 70 and 80 percent of coalition casualties in Afghanistan are now caused by improvised bombs. The International Security Assistance Force announced today that eight U.S. troops — and an Afghan civilian working for the coalition — were killed in “multiple, complex” roadside bomb attacks in southern Afghanistan.

The effectiveness of such improvised explosives is having a toll. From David Wood, IEDs are the cause of 384 deaths in Afghanistan in 2009, and with the year two months to conclusion that number could still rise. Quoting Wood:

The dramatic upswing in dead and wounded came despite months of preparation for the “surge” of troops authorized last spring by President Obama. The Pentagon deployed close to $1 billion worth of IED jammers, mine-clearing vehicles, heavy armored trucks and other gear as well as intelligence analysts and technical specialists to Afghanistan to blunt the expected wave of new IED attacks. […]

“The IED is playing a larger and larger role in the enemy’s effort,” Lt. Gen. Tom Metz, the Pentagon’s top IED hunter, said Tuesday.

More to the point, he said, the IED “is a weapon system the enemy has figured out has strategic impact.” Its effect on the battlefield may be horrifying, not only for those it maims, but for the tens of thousands of troops who set out each day under the stress of knowing that an IED blast could come at any second. But for the Taliban, the more critical (“strategic”) target is the American public and politicians, whom the insurgents hope to convince that the cost in blood is simply too high to continue the war.

As Wood notes and Stars and Stripes correlates, the insurgency may be getting their wish:

JIEDDO Director Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz said he thinks IED attacks would continue to increase if the U.S. sent more troops to Afghanistan.

“Just as we found in [Regional Command-South], the enemy had a lot of time to put a lot of IEDs in and we have bumped into a lot of them,” Metz said. “The enemy’s having to replace them, and that’s taking time and energy and money, and the fight’s on.”

Metz, who will retire on Nov. 13, attributed the slight decrease in recent months to the fact that all the extra troops already approved for Afghanistan have arrived are learning the terrain. Still, he acknowledged that the ratio of IED incidents to casualties has remained fairly steady in Afghanistan, compared with Iraq, where insurgents increasingly have to use more IEDs to inflict a single casualty.

Speaking of JIEDDO, you sure can’t claim they’re not earning their paycheck. Its director, LtGen Thomas Metz, spoke before the House Armed Services Committee on 29 October 09 about JIEDDO’s efforts to quell the effect of IEDs.

The environment and the enemy in Afghanistan pose an altogether different challenge. Although initially slower to develop in Afghanistan, the IED has now replaced direct fire weapons as the enemy’s weapon of choice. Our enemies in Afghanistan also use IEDs in combination with conventional direct and indirect fire weapons as a part of complex attacks.

Furthermore, Afghanistan local insurgents, tribal factions, and the Taliban enjoy a greater freedom of action to emplace large numbers of IEDs in movement corridors vital to our success. Our challenge is further compounded because these groups intimidate local populaces, preventing their cooperation with the often suspiciously viewed Afghan government and, in turn, with us.

To ensure the most comprehensive possible support to this complex theater, JIEDDO has undertaken an ongoing Afghanistan support planning process that has so far generated more than 100 counter-IED initiatives for this theater. Continually refined as we move forward, this planning effort provides an ongoing assessment which guides department-level decision makers on critical counter-IED investments and resource allocations.

“Weapon of choice” is, I think, an important phrase. Despite it’s occasional innocuousness, it has a larger and more deadly implication. From AFPS late last month:

More intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, including the most advanced drones and other equipment, are among the supplies the department is working to field to troops in Afghanistan, where one defense official today said the IED has emerged as the enemy’s preferred means of attack.

Gates last month ordered nearly 3,000 extra route clearance and explosive ordnance disposal teams and other key personnel downrange, in addition to a parcel of the more than 6,600 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles designed specifically for Afghanistan’s rugged terrain that the department plans to field.

Morrell has said previously the department would like the M-ATVs, as the vehicles are known, to have an effect in Afghanistan similar to the one that the original MRAP vehicles had when they were delivered en masse to Iraq, leading to a reduction in casualties resulting from roadside bombs.

“Even with all these additional counter-IED resources, there will no doubt be many difficult and dangerous days ahead for our forces,” Morrell cautioned.

Of the various counter-IED resources, the MRAP is probably the most visible and most significant in terms of daily impact. But as Rex over at Afghanistan My Last Tour (Part Two, Part Three) getting them going isn’t always so easy. And are they only going to combatant soldiers? Or will some of these mine-resistant vehicles go to diplos-at-war?

According to a recent post on Dipnote, the State Department’s official blog, the Civilian Response Corps — a newly created organization that has 50 active members, and another 200 on standby — will be receiving a fleet of 28 “fully armored vehicles” next year. “The vehicles will also be available for use by other U.S. Government employees supporting reconstruction and stabilization missions abroad,” the post says.

In addition, the Corps will receive additional gear to become more self-sufficient in the field: Medical kits, solar powered equipment rechargers, and office start-up kits. They will also have body armor, helmets and self-contained, solar-powered communications equipment packages to keep in touch with Foggy Bottom.

That’s not to detract from the importance of diplos (and their security), I caution. Just a note that there are limited quantities so far, even if Secdef Gates is pressing for greater production. And it makes me wonder about those sixth-sense bomb-sniffing wonders and their value to an MRAP-ing unit:

Military researchers have found that two groups of personnel are particularly good at spotting anomalies: those with hunting backgrounds, who traipsed through the woods as youths looking to bag a deer or turkey; and those who grew up in tough urban neighborhoods, where it is often important to know what gang controls which block.

Personnel who fit neither category, often young men who grew up in the suburbs and developed a liking for video games, do not seem to have the depth perception and peripheral vision of the others, even if their eyesight is 20/20.

The findings do not surprise Army Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, the top enlisted man with the Pentagon-based Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, which conducted the study. He’s made multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and ridden in more than 1,000 convoys and, on 19 occasions, been in a vehicle hit by a roadside bomb.

The best troops he’s ever seen when it comes to spotting bombs were soldiers from the South Carolina National Guard, nearly all with rural backgrounds that included hunting.

“They just seemed to pick up things much better,” Burnett said. “They know how to look at the entire environment.”

Maybe, in addition to staffing units with well-trained women, units should also have a good deer hunter in their midst. In an appropriately armoured ATV, of course.

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