Improvised Explosives Imperil U.S. Forces in Iraq

One of the most common dangers to American soldiers in Iraq is the improvised explosive device, or IED. Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of a Pentagon task force working to reduce the number of IEDs in Iraq, discusses the threat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.

More violence today in Iraq. The US military is reporting the death of an American soldier. He was killed in a vehicle accident, the result of a roadside explosion. According to the military, the explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device or IED. That's a big problem there, Iraqi insurgents constantly setting up such roadside bombs. US soldiers try to spot the weapons before they explode. Steve Inskeep has more on the small confrontations that form a large part of the war in Iraq.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In this part of the program, we're looking at the way soldiers and insurgents try to outwit one another. One of the leaders for the American side is Army Brigadier General Joseph Votel. He's the director of a Pentagon task force on the roadside attacks.

Brigadier General JOSEPH VOTEL (US Army): This is an enemy that uses the Internet, that reads our own newspapers, that films his own attacks, that watches how we do things.

INSKEEP: General Votel's job is to watch how insurgents do things and to pass on what he learns. This week, he's meeting with soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division as they prepare to return to Iraq. The veteran soldiers will likely find insurgents using different tactics than during their last visit.

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: When we describe the enemy, we describe him usually with three different words. He's adaptive, he's learning and he's innovative. He demonstrates repeatedly to us his ability to adapt, to watch what we're doing, to watch what our countermeasures are and then to adjust and to do it very, very quickly.

INSKEEP: What's a tactic that the US military's used to respond to IEDs and then you've discovered it doesn't work anymore because the enemy's overcome it?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Early on, we saw IEDs that were command-wired buried into the side of the road and then kind of detonated with a wire device to it. We became pretty adept at training soldiers what to look for, the signs to look for. And what that has driven the enemy to do is to go to other methods for initiating them, his use of the radio spectrum to initiate them as opposed to having hard wires and things like that.

INSKEEP: We've been interviewing US soldiers in Iraq and Marines in Iraq as they deal with this threat. Let's listen to 1st Lieutenant Jonah Martin(ph). He's describing what he's looking for when he goes out on a patrol.

1st Lieutenant JONAH MARTIN (US Army): Basically, when you do a route security mission, it's a matter of just knowing what's out of place. When you patrol the same route every day for at least a week, sometimes a couple of weeks, even in the trash piles, which there are a lot of, you can look and tell if something's been disturbed recently.

INSKEEP: So, General Votel, he's looking for one of those telltale signs like a wire...

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Right.

INSKEEP: ...leading out of a trash pile and going to a detonator someplace?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Right. The very best sensor that we have on the battlefield today is the individual soldier or Marine, and his ability to use his eyeballs, use his intellect to understand what is happening out there. And almost exactly as the lieutenant said there, about knowing what doesn't look right here. And certainly one of the things we try to emphasize in our training is patrolling of common areas, going back and looking for those telltale signs of, you know, a dirt pile or a sign or some kind of marking or some trash or something that wasn't in the same spot where it has been over the last couple days.

INSKEEP: The US military released a report about a friendly fire incident on the road to Baghdad airport a few weeks ago and some information was inadvertently put in the public version of that report, which when I look at it, there's one item here that makes you wonder if they're responding to your response. You try to jam some of their radio signals so they go for another detonation device. The report says that increasingly on the road to the Baghdad airport there's the use of explosives set on a timer.

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: It's very much--I don't want to trivialize it by saying it's a cat-and-mouse game, but it is very much like that. He does something, we take a countermeasure, he counters the countermeasure. And so this is very much a thinking man's game here in terms of what we're doing with this, trying to get ahead of the curve. Ultimately, you know, the solution to this is probably not technology. Ultimately, it's going out and finding these bomb makers and the bomb maker networks and taking them down.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to another American soldier in Iraq. This is Lieutenant Colonel David Bachlor(ph) describing one kind of improvised explosive device that he's heard about and seen.

Lieutenant Colonel DAVID BACHLOR (US Army): In some cases, they build the median themselves and they'll put the round inside something that looks like the concrete median. And the only thing that sticks out is a small antenna. So unless you look very closely, you can't see that. And it just looks like the crypt blowing up on you.

INSKEEP: How intensively do you have to monitor a route, General Votel, to make sure that something like that doesn't happen, that a construction crew doesn't show up that's not really a construction crew, for example?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: One of the things we do try to do is we do try to look at how we provide surveillance over these particular areas, both through the use of, you know, human surveillance, patrols, observation posts that watch likely areas for employment of IEDs. And then through the use of some technology, they can provide persistent surveillance over likely areas so that they can be watched. And it could be security cameras, it could be things that we put in aerostats.

INSKEEP: What's an aerostat?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: A blimp.

INSKEEP: You've got blimps flying over Baghdad?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Sure.

INSKEEP: And so somewhere on a command post, there's someone who's the equivalent of the security guy in a building. He's sitting there in front of a bunch of television screens watching what's going on.

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Aviation Week reported recently that the Defense Department put out a request for bids to contractors to come up with solutions or countermeasures to IEDs and that there were more than 200 responses. Did you get anything interesting?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Actually we did. And the actual number of responses we got was actually a little bit higher than that.

INSKEEP: How high are we talking about?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: In about the eight hundreds, 800 different ideas that came in. And we've kind of worked through those. We've whittled it down to those that I think are most pertinent to some of our gaps that we're trying to fill right now. And now we're continuing to work with those benders to kind of flesh it out a little bit more.

INSKEEP: There must be a challenge on your side to make sure that you adapt quickly enough, by the time you hear about a new enemy technique and work out a way to train people against it and train people and send the new guys to Iraq, they might be trained for something that hasn't been used for six months.

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: You've hit on a very important aspect of it. And, you know, the largeness of our force and our structure could work against us with that and so that is a constant point of friction that we are always trying to work through, making sure that we pass information as quickly as we can and make sure that it gets to the level at which it's most useable.

INSKEEP: Does the enemy have a built-in advantage because the enemy is a smaller force and the threat is much more low-tech?

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: He probably doesn't have as many boundaries on him to disseminating information or moving around, which is an indicator to us. We've got to take on some of those characteristics and make sure that we are as adaptive as we can. And I think we're moving that way.

INSKEEP: US Army Brigadier General Joseph Votel is the director of the Department of Defense's Joint IED Defeat Task Force.

General, thanks very much.

Brig. Gen. VOTEL: Thank you.

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