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Military Sensors Catch The Scent Of Roadside Bombs

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Military Sensors Catch The Scent Of Roadside Bombs

Afghanistan

Military Sensors Catch The Scent Of Roadside Bombs

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Afghanistan, the American military plays a chess game with the enemy. Insurgents plant deadly roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The Americans find ways to detect them, then the insurgents come up with new ways to conceal those bombs. To get an idea of what it's like for the troops, we're going to listen to part of a story we aired in 2009. NPR's Tom Bowman was on patrol with Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand Province as they searched for IEDs.

TOM BOWMAN: At the front of the patrol, a Marine sweeps the ground with a hand-held minesweeper, a flat, green angular version of what people use on a beach to find coins. Before long, he finds a bomb at a dirt-road intersection just outside a compound of mud houses.

Unidentified Man: One minute.

BOWMAN: The Marines are ready to detonate the IED.

Unidentified Man: Ten seconds. Ten seconds.

(Soundbite of explosion)

MONTAGNE: That was 2009. This morning, from Washington, D.C., Tom has this update on the Pentagon's latest move to take away the enemy's favorite weapon.

BOWMAN: The American military has spent billions of dollars trying to solve the problem of roadside bombs. They've come up with electronic jammers to block the signal that sets them off. They use dogs to sniff out the bomb's components. The Pentagon has even set up a special office to deal with the IED problem. Lieutenant General Michael Oates, who heads the office, says they've come up with a new, more futuristic tool.

Lieutenant General MICHAELL OATES (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization): It's a sensor pod that's carried aboard platforms.

TOM BOWMAN: A sensor pod attached to American aircraft. Those aircraft have been circling above the Afghanistan battlefield for the past year. The sensors pick up traces of the bombs' chemicals, like potassium chlorate and ammonium nitrate.

Lt. Gen. OATES: There's trace elements, there's a range of things. It's not unlike a woman passing through and being able to detect the scent of her perfume or maybe she touched your hand and left something behind that is discernable. There are all kinds of ways you can detect trace activity.

BOWMAN: The homemade explosive has always been the weapon of choice in Afghanistan. In Iraq, insurgents often used artillery shells that were easier to find with metal detectors. But in Afghanistan those homemade explosives are often buried in plastic jugs and can't be spotted with the detectors.

Last summer, the military began testing the new airborne sensors in Afghanistan. By year's end, officials say, the sensors helped lead American soldiers to enough homemade explosives to build about 500 roadside bombs.

Again, General Oates...

Lt. Gen. OATES: We've found dozens of homemade explosive caches. Probably a hundred, maybe less, lives have been saved as a result of taking this material off the market.

BOWMAN: The top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has asked for more of these sensors.

Mr. PETER SINGER (Brookings Institution): It's significant but I wouldn't use game changer yet to describe it.

BOWMAN: That's Peter Singer, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, who has written about roadside bombs.

Mr. SINGER: Simply because, you know, war is action, then reaction, and they'll react to this most likely the same.

BOWMAN: Singer says Afghan insurgents are already reacting by planting even more roadside bombs. Two hundred six-eight Americans in Afghanistan were killed by IEDs in 2010, a number that almost exceeds those killed in the previous three years.

Mr. SINGER: And that's on top of more than 3,000 soldiers that were injured, so the IED has been the insurgent's sort of primary weapon against us.

BOWMAN: General Oates agrees there's good news and bad in the roadside bomb fight. The percentage of Americans killed in IED attacks has actually dropped in the last several months, he says. More Taliban bombs are being found and destroyed by the Americans. But at the same time, General Oates says, there are more American troops on the ground and they're finding themselves in more danger. They're fanning out to protect villages, often on foot patrols because their armored vehicles can't handle the narrow dirt roads.

Lt. Gen. OATES: They're able to interact with the population but they place themselves at greater risk when one of these detonates. And that's why we've seen a rise in wounded, particularly amputations.

BOWMAN: General Oates says only when the Afghan population decides to turn against the Taliban will there be significant success against roadside bombs. It won't be because of a new American gadget.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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