In late June this year, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced that fatalities from roadside bomb attacks in Iraq had dropped by nearly 90 percent over the previous year. In May of this year, improvised explosive devices (IED) claimed the lives of 11 US troops. Compared to the 92 lives lost to IEDs in May of 2007, that’s an astounding 88 percent decrease.

What are the reasons for the decrease? Pentagon officials have pointed to the deployment of some 7000 new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Iraq, vehicles that can withstand a much heavier pounding than the military’s up-armored Humvees. Officials also cite increased assistance from the Iraqis themselves, improved intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and better training of US forces in counter-IED detection and tactics as joint operations with Iraqi and US forces train together (see Figure 1). The military also likes to show off its many high-tech explosive-ordnance-disposal (EOD) robots, used to both detect and disable IEDs.

But much less frequently discussed are the new technologies that have been and continue to be installed in US military vehicles—and not just the new MRAPs, but also older vehicles like Humvees and Abrams tanks. These systems, along with those carried by the individual soldiers themselves, have also played a part in cutting US military losses, both in lives and materiel.

Getting Rolling

Since the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the IED has, without a doubt, been the most effective weapon used by insurgent forces. IEDs killed or wounded some 300 US servicemen and women in the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom alone (see Figure 2). The US military clearly was not prepared to face this threat with the capabilities at its disposal at the time. “Was the US Army ready for this threat?,” asked Paul Plemmons, senior vice president of Electronic Warfare/Range Programs at Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC), the maker of the Thor family of dismounted IED jammers. “The answer is blatantly no. IEDs weren’t really in the war plan.”

But the Pentagon needed to do something, and it needed to do it quickly. So starting near the end of 2003, the US Army began ordering large numbers of Warlock jammers, produced mostly by the then EDO Corp. (which has since been acquired by ITT). The Warlock system, an adaptation of the company’s existing Shortstop Electronic Protection System (SEPS)—itself a counter-artillery system—was hardly the ideal solution, but one that could be deployed quickly and in relatively large numbers. The early Warlock Red and Green systems were also quite bulky, taking up the passenger seat in a Humvee, according to one knowledgeable source (not to be confused with the portable handheld Warlock Blue produced by M/A-COM). Not only does this mean that using the early Warlock systems wouldn’t allow for a soldier to ride in the passenger seat, but it also meant that the driver had to operate the system in addition to driving the vehicle.

Other systems were also fielded early on, such as the Navy’s Ironwood and the IED Countermeasures Equipment (ICE), the latter of which was developed at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, but these too, fell short of being ideal solutions. Essentially, these early systems fielded during the conflict in Iraq were temporary stopgaps, and it had become quite clear by early 2006 that better solutions were needed. It was around that time that the DoD really started investing in development of new solutions to the IED threat. As one industry observer said, “Instead of saying they were going to spend the money, they actually started spending it.”

Rough Road

Spending money, though, doesn’t ensure an easy solution to a problem. The military and industry have faced a number of challenges in confronting the threat posed by IEDs in Iraq, first and foremost of these being the nature of the threat itself.

When it comes to building IEDs, the enemy has quite a toolbox and just about all of the components of that toolbox are readily available on the commercial market. Moreover, the toolbox is constantly evolving. “The biggest challenge in addressing the IED threat is the fast pace, how the threat is evolving and how fast the military has to react,” said John Russell, chief engineer at SNC.

This view of the threat is also shared by the US Navy, which is managing the Joint Counter Radio-Controlled IED (RCIED) Electronic Warfare (JCREW) program for the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Alan Baribeau, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), said, “Our primary goal is to maintain our position ahead of the rapidly evolving civilian telecommunications industry, which is constantly improving products available to consumers.”

Not only is the evolutionary nature of the IED threat a challenge, but the sheer variety of IEDs is as well. Different bombmakers have their own preferences. For instance, some will use garage-door openers as their triggering mechanisms, whereas others might use, say, cell phones as their radio-control (RC) devices, as shown in Figure 3. Add to this a convoy that could be tasked to drive through areas with different insurgent cells, each with its own preferred method of making their IEDs, and the situation gets even more complex. As SNC’s Russell put it, “If you make a coffee cup that goes after other coffee cups, all you’re going to have is the ability to take out other coffee cups. But there are going to be more threats than that, and you can’t be carrying around 14 different pieces of equipment.”

This is especially true when one considers that, when one RC option is eliminated, the enemy, said SNC’s Plemmons, “can just go to his closet and pull out another trigger mechanism.”

Also, with IEDs, the warfighter is very close to the threat and getting closer every second, dramatically cutting into one’s reaction time, explained Jim Periard, director of the IED Defeat Task Force at Syracuse Research Corp. (SRC), producer of the DUKE family of vehicle-mounted IED jamming gear. “If you’re driving a Humvee at 50 miles per hour,” he said, “you better be able to do something pretty damn quickly.”

Another issue with IEDs is that the enemy not only has that large tool box and adaptability, but that adaptability has been much more rapid in many cases than the US military’s. The enemy, said one source, “could shift tactics and techniques in weeks, where it took us months to adjust.”

Other challenges in addressing the IED threat that the US ground forces have faced have been organizational and cultural ones. As late as 2005, according to one source, the Army simply didn’t have the expertise needed to use the counter-IED gear it was receiving. Oftentimes, they were jamming their own communications, or to avoid such jamming, simply not turning the counter IED systems on at all. “We went through a period where soldiers didn’t want to use any system,” said SRC’s Periard.

SNC’s Russell added that soldiers also, from lack of familiarity with the new systems they were suddenly receiving, often didn’t believe they’d work as advertised. The challenge then becomes, he said, how do you gain the confidence of the warfighter? How do you get him to believe that these systems really could save his life?

The service also lacked the testing equipment used, for example, to analyze antenna radiation patterns to check for gaps in coverage. And logistics, maintenance and training for using the self-protection systems were virtually non-existent at first and had to be built up from scratch. One source even related a story of how one unit had parked two of its vehicles side by side so that the large masts that housed their jamming antennas could be used as football goal posts. The soldiers had to be told they couldn’t do that, because there was a chance—however remote it may have been—that the equipment inside could be damaged, equipment they might one day need to help save their lives (see Figure 4). There was also a great deal of basic education that needed to be done in terms of the handling of the equipment and of its importance.

Of course, there have also been technical issues as well, such as the aforementioned self-jamming, as well as other issues of interoperability. Across the board, many sources have cited the need for addressing size, weight and power issues with the systems. Other technical challenges include the dense electromagnetic environment, especially in urban operations around, say, Baghdad. Terrain can also present a challenge in terms of “seeing” around the corners of buildings or what’s on the other side of a hill, for instance.

Other issues are related solely to industry. For one, the sheer number of systems and the speed with which they are required by the military put a considerable amount of stress on development teams, production lines and more, especially in the early stages of the conflict, when the Pentagon was in quick-reaction mode. The reaction from both government and industry was extremely quick. “IEDs really got on us in August of ‘03,” according to SNC’s Plemmons, “and in ‘04, we were rolling systems out.” Speaking of industry as a whole, SRC’s Periard said, “I don’t even know that we could repeat what we did.”

Are We There Yet?

So have these issues been dealt with? According to both military and industry sources, to a significant degree, the answer is yes. However, there is clearly still much work to be done.

In terms of organization, soldiers in the field are getting more support now, as opposed to earlier on in Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the DoD was “throwing boxes out there and telling soldiers to turn them on,” as one source put it. “The Army had to learn a lot of tough lessons,” he said. Perhaps most importantly, though, electronic warfare (EW), of which the counter-IED mission must be considered part, is now viewed as a core competency by the Army. “So just like everyone gets trained in pulling a trigger,” he said, “now they get basic EW training, too.”

NAVSEA spokesman Baribeau also stressed the importance of training. Tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) in the counter-IED fight have been and continue to be developed and implemented across the DoD, and these TTPs, he said, have been key to the US military’s successes in that arena. He also noted that all of the program offices supporting JIEDDO’s efforts have been working hard and have made steady gains in improving not only training, but logistics as well. “It’s difficult to develop, build, maintain systems and train operators for any complex system that is replicated on tens of thousands of mobile platforms,” Baribeau said, “but it’s a job that has to be done.”

On the technical side, the “size/ weight/power” refrain is still being sung in all quarters, especially on the dismounted side, for obvious reasons. The technology is there, sources agree, but it’s just a question of making it smaller and still providing the same amount of power, if not more. “Being able to do the CREW-type mission is in our sweet spot,” claimed Chris Ager, director of Information Dominance Systems for BAE Systems, which is currently providing dismounted counter-IED systems to the DoD (widely believed to be based on British firm Selex Communications’ Guardian W system, though Ager declined to confirm this). “We have the capability, but can we do it in those space, weight and power requirements?”

That’s not to say that these concerns don’t exist unless you’re talking about a dismounted system. “In the mounted world,” said SRC’s Periard, “our systems have to be mounted on vehicles that are already strapped for space and power.”

One key element to addressing the size, weight and power concerns is improving battery technology, SNC’s Russell pointed out. Oftentimes the battery, he said, is the heaviest component in a system of this type. If you can make that battery smaller and lighter, while still providing the same amount of power (or better yet, more), you can go a long way towards improving these systems.

Another key in this area is to build vehicles with IEDs in mind, as the DoD has begun to do, as with the MRAPs, for example. This means that you won’t have to give up your passenger seat to a counter-IED system, or, say, wrap your vehicle in a cage-like structure, as was done with many of the Stryker vehicles deployed in Iraq (see Figure 5).

Of course, greater capability is always desirable, too. BAE System’s Ager noted that one capability that could be enhanced is the discrimination of the systems—what SNC’s Russell referred to as “robustness” or “the intelligence of the jammer”—in other words, the ability to jam threat signals without interfering with own communications or even, say, civilian radio or mobile phones.

Improved detection would also be a great step forward. According to SNC’s Plemmons, “some 70–80 percent of all IEDs are being found with the human eyeball.” Automating such detection using multispectral sensors, for instance, would not only provide a better detection capability, but it would also free up the soldier to perform other duties (see Figure 6). Counter-IED systems also must be made easier to use, so that every soldier can use them effectively and without taking up too much of their time. Adding reporting capabilities to systems that don’t already have them—or even improving upon capabilities that already exist—would also boost soldiers’ confidence in the systems by letting them know when the system had detected and/or defeated an IED.

Perhaps we will see some of these capability improvements in JCREW Spirals 3.1 and 3.2, contracts for which were awarded at the end of 2007. Sierra Nevada Corp. ($7.2 M contract) was selected to develop the dismounted counter-IED system, while Syracuse Research Corp. ($4.4 M contract) will be working on the mounted side. These systems will be based on those companies’ Thor and DUKE systems, respectively. Northrop Grumman and ITT were also awarded contracts ($16.1 and $9.8 M, ­respectively) for each to develop combined mounted/dismounted systems. This will be Northrop Grumman’s first major venture in the counter-IED arena, while ITT has made much of its gains in the IED-countermeasures market through acquisitions—first of EDO Corp. (Warlock systems) late last year and, more recently, of Nashua, NH-based Impact Science and Technologies, another big player in the counter-IED field.

BAE Systems’ Ager said his company views JCREW Spirals 3.1 and 3.2 as “technology gapfillers,” likening them to other systems that he said fulfilled the same purpose, such as the Warlock and Lockheed Martin’s Symphony (which was actually developed by Canadian firm Allen-Vanguard).

Indeed, the Navy itself says as much. JCREW Spirals 3.1 and 3.2 are intended to “provide a bridge to ensure the Department of Defense can maintain pace with technology prior to the release of the JCREW 3.3,” NAVSEA’s Baribeau said.

The Road Ahead

The next step then for the DoD is the JCREW Spiral 3.3 program, for which a request for information (RFI) from industry was issued on February 15. Navy spokesman Baribeau described the Spiral 3.3 effort as the DoD’s “long-term project to develop capabilities for a suite of systems—dismounted, mounted and fixed-site systems—to defeat future global threats.” He called JCREW Spiral 3.3 “a very deliberate development effort that is targeted at developing systems of systems for the future.”

Baribeau declined to discuss details of the capabilities of any future CREW systems, as these are, of course, classified. He did say, however, that the service and the DoD as a whole have been “very pleased with industry responses” to RFIs and RFPs to date, stating that “many innovative solutions and approaches have been proposed and many funded.”

Indeed many of the capability boosts mentioned earlier could very likely find their way into JCREW Spiral 3.3. However, production of systems developed under Spiral 3.3 isn’t guaranteed, especially given the possibility that the US could begin withdrawing troops from Iraq as early as next year, depending, in part, on the outcome of the November presidential election. While BAE Systems’ Ager expressed confidence that JCREW 3.3 would continue “regardless of the world situation,” he did say that in his opinion, whether or not the DoD would buy it was “up in the air.”

Slightly less optimistic about funding for future production of counter-IED systems like JCREW Spiral 3.3, SRC’s Periard said we most likely won’t be seeing systems being fielded in the numbers we have been over the past four years. “Everybody recognizes there’s not going to be the huge production and the millions of dollars being spent that we’ve been seeing,” he said, noting that he views Spiral 3.3 primarily as a technology-development program aimed at greater compatibility and (no surprise here) reduced size, weight and power requirements. He said he believes the system will most likely evolve into an integrated ground-based EW suite. One industry source, however, was not even that optimistic. When asked if he saw a lot of funding on tap for counter-IED systems, he responded quite flatly, “Yeah, in the short term.”

Whether the JCREW Spiral 3.3 is ever procured in great numbers or not, one particular question will, no doubt, arise eventually. What will the DoD do with the tens of thousands or earlier systems that have already been fielded? With the DoD’s stated goal being a “system of systems” or “family of systems” to address the IED threat, as well as the desire for commonality and jointness across the services, how will the many different systems already out in the field fit in? Can they fit in? No one seems to have an answer to this question just yet, but it will be interesting to see what the DoD decides to do with the earlier-generation Warlock, Symphony, Thor, DUKE, ICE and many other CREW systems it has already put into the field.

One thing everyone seems to agree on, though: the IED threat is here to stay. “IEDs as a weapon system—and they are a weapon system—are not going away,” according to SNC’s Plemmons. “They’re insidious.” He said that while the science and physics of addressing the threat they present is not impossible, it is difficult. “JIEDDO’s got all of the lower-hanging fruit,” he said, “and now they’re going after the higher-end stuff.”

SNC’s Russell explained further that, with the US military’s successes to date in the counter-RCIED arena, “the bad guys are being driven away from RC, so we really need to focus on detection, rather than just jamming trigger signals.” Clearly, the ride isn’t over. IED fatalities in May of this year may have dropped to 11, but that’s still 11 lives too many, as shown in Figure 7.

Brendan P. Rivers has been writing about defense issues, particularly military electronics, for more than a decade and served as both a writer and editor for The Journal of Electronic Defense (JED) from 1998 to 2006. He now works as a freelance writer from his home in Attleboro, MA.