Despite High-Tech Help, Marines Confront IEDs

Third in a series

When Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson's Marines were preparing to launch a major offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province early in the summer, he put improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, at the top of the list of what to expect.

  • The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July. Here, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander, covers his eyes and hits the ground as a Marine helicopter lifts off from Forward Operating Base Delhi.
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    The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July. Here, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander, covers his eyes and hits the ground as a Marine helicopter lifts off from Forward Operating Base Delhi.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from 2/8 are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.
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    First Sgt. Derrick Mays is the top enlisted man in Fox Company. The Marines from 2/8 are nearing the end of their deployment, but are still busy with patrols and face daily threats from roadside bombs.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine carries a metal detector near Garmsir in Helmand province in a sweep for roadside bombs. That day, Marines found and destroyed three homemade explosive devices during their six-hour patrol.
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    A Marine carries a metal detector near Garmsir in Helmand province in a sweep for roadside bombs. That day, Marines found and destroyed three homemade explosive devices during their six-hour patrol.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine walks through a cornfield after word of a potential ambush was received from village locals. The corn is problematic for the Marines, as insurgents use the fields as cover to launch attacks and plant bombs.
    Hide caption
    A Marine walks through a cornfield after word of a potential ambush was received from village locals. The corn is problematic for the Marines, as insurgents use the fields as cover to launch attacks and plant bombs.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat to the Marines working in the Helmand River valley. Here, Lt. James Wende (right) keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol. Since July, bombs in Helmand province have killed 40 Marines and wounded more than 160.
    Hide caption
    Improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat to the Marines working in the Helmand River valley. Here, Lt. James Wende (right) keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol. Since July, bombs in Helmand province have killed 40 Marines and wounded more than 160.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Local farmers harvest corn by hand in the Helmand River valley while being watched by Marines.
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    Local farmers harvest corn by hand in the Helmand River valley while being watched by Marines.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.
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    Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • The blast crater from a homemade explosive device, after being detonated by the Marines.
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    The blast crater from a homemade explosive device, after being detonated by the Marines.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine with Fox Company holds an M-16 round in his teeth after clearing his weapon before entering Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
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    A Marine with Fox Company holds an M-16 round in his teeth after clearing his weapon before entering Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Lt. Samuel Oliver has had to keep his men together through the blazing heat of summer, ambushes and IED attacks. He constantly moves them to new locations in the Marine's area of operation.
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    Lt. Samuel Oliver has had to keep his men together through the blazing heat of summer, ambushes and IED attacks. He constantly moves them to new locations in the Marine's area of operation.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • As the sweltering summer temperatures have dropped, rising water has brought a new set of problems as winter approaches. Here, Marines shovel piles of rocks into the flooded entrance to Patrol Base Barcha in the Helmand River valley.
    Hide caption
    As the sweltering summer temperatures have dropped, rising water has brought a new set of problems as winter approaches. Here, Marines shovel piles of rocks into the flooded entrance to Patrol Base Barcha in the Helmand River valley.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Oliver makes his way through mud on the perimeter of Patrol Base Barcha, south of Garmsir. The rising water comes from the surrounding cornfields and has forced Marines to fill the area with gravel and sandbags.
    Hide caption
    Oliver makes his way through mud on the perimeter of Patrol Base Barcha, south of Garmsir. The rising water comes from the surrounding cornfields and has forced Marines to fill the area with gravel and sandbags.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • A Marine stands beneath a sunshade at Patrol Base Hassan Abad. Temperatures are close to 80 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night, making long-range patrols more tolerable than they were at the beginning of the deployment.
    Hide caption
    A Marine stands beneath a sunshade at Patrol Base Hassan Abad. Temperatures are close to 80 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night, making long-range patrols more tolerable than they were at the beginning of the deployment.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR
  • Marines share time together cooling off and joking around after patrolling the area outside of Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
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    Marines share time together cooling off and joking around after patrolling the area outside of Patrol Base Hassan Abad.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR, Slideshow produced by Coburn Dukehart/NPR

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"I'm concerned about the IEDs, and I know you are, too," he told the Marines. "There's a hell of a lot of IEDs out there. ... And we're going to kill the guys that have a chance to get out there and lay them. But they're out there, and you need to know that."

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Tom Bowman

They do know it. Since July, 40 Marines in Helmand province have been killed, and more than 160 have been seriously wounded, most by IEDs.

IEDs now account for nearly three-quarters of the American deaths in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is sending more equipment to detect these hidden killers and setting up special centers to sift through intelligence information.

But Marines on the ground say much of the battle against IEDs is still falling to them.

New Equipment

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it a priority to get the troops in Afghanistan what they need to protect them from IEDs. "To accomplish this, I have ordered additional intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Afghanistan," he says.

The new gear includes sophisticated aircraft with high-resolution cameras that can spot an insurgent planting a roadside bomb or sweep up insurgents' cell phone conversations. The Pentagon is sending more bomb disposal teams to pluck explosive devices from dirt roads before they kill American troops.

And if those teams miss a bomb? The military is sending more sophisticated electronic jammers that can block a triggering signal, preventing an insurgent from ever setting off a bomb.

And if all these measures fail, and a bomb explodes, there is a new series of heavily armored vehicles to better protect soldiers and Marines. They still may suffer some broken bones — but they'll survive.

Fusing Together Information

A Marine carries a metal detector at the front of his patrol in Helmand province. i i

hide captionA Marine with with Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment carries a metal detector at the front of his patrol in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan near Garmsir.

David Gilkey/NPR
A Marine carries a metal detector at the front of his patrol in Helmand province.

A Marine with with Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment carries a metal detector at the front of his patrol in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan near Garmsir.

David Gilkey/NPR

Part of the effort against IEDs in Afghanistan is run in the United States.

The Air Force in the past few years has set up what are known as "intelligence fusion centers" to pull together snippets of information — drone pictures, intercepted cell phone conversations, interviews with Afghan sources.

Col. Dan Johnson oversees this effort inside a large windowless room at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — the Wing Operations Center. It's one of several that the Air Force operates. That's because a growing part of the effort to destroy the networks and protect American ground troops comes from the sky.

Massive TV screens show live drone feeds from Afghanistan — streaming video of roads and suspected Taliban hideouts.

Those images are sent by drones and piloted surveillance aircraft. The Air Force has enough of these planes to provide 37 continuous patrols in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the top officer in the Air Force, says most are now flown over Afghanistan.

"We have sensors and we have 24/7 coverage again that we can use to watch the routes of travel and hopefully detect emplacement of IEDs or untoward sort of activity that might suggest that we should look at something further," he says.

Schwartz says aerial surveillance is just one piece of the puzzle in going after roadside bombs and those who place them.

"The key thing here is fusing this," Schwartz says. "It's taking the optical imagery, taking the radar imagery, taking the human intelligence that our Office of Special Investigation agents might be collecting outside the fence."

Inside The Operations Center

Inside the center at Langley Air Force Base, dozens of airmen are hunched over banks of computers. Each day, Lt. Col. Brendan Harris and his staff send out hundreds of messages to field commanders in Afghanistan about the threats they have uncovered.

"We analyze it and send it in real time or near real time downrange to people who are going to use it," Harris says — people like Nicholson and his Marines, who launched the operation in southern Afghanistan this summer.

"People who are going to kick down a door, who are going to go out and find the IEDs — the improvised explosive devices — that we're looking for; who are going to find bad guys, kill or capture the bad guys; or maybe just to a convoy that's going to transit a road so we can steer them around and save American or coalition force lives," he says.

On The Ground

But some of the Marines operating in Afghanistan's Helmand province say they have seen only one Predator drone in the past two or three months, leaving the fight against IEDs largely in the hands of the ground troops.

The Marines frequently patrol with hand-held minesweepers, a version of what people use on a beach to find coins. But Nicholson says his best weapon against the bombs is what he calls the "Mark One eyeball" — the eye of a trained Marine who has been in the area for many weeks, is familiar with the roads and trails and knows where IEDs have been planted in the past. Insurgents frequently put bombs in the same places.

One piece of the puzzle that hasn't come together yet on the ground is gaining the trust of the local population. In Iraq's Anbar province, for example, once local residents began to trust the U.S. troops, they began to turn over information about the roadside bombs.

Another tactic that worked in Iraq: setting up operations centers on roads that allowed troops a view about a half-mile down to prevent insurgents from planting IEDs. But the military says it still doesn't have enough troops to cover the roads in Afghanistan.

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