STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to hear next about one of the main threats facing American troops in Afghanistan: Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, got the military's attention a few years ago in Iraq. In the early years of that war, the bombings became the biggest killer of American troops. So this week, we're looking at the threat posed by IEDs and the ways the U.S. is protecting its troops. NPR's J.J. Sutherland reports on the problem and on one idea that worked.
J.J. SUTHERLAND: For years in Iraq, the most boring task was terrifying: driving, the endless hours of it that an occupying army has to do that could get you killed.
One moment things would be fine. You're gazing out the window at the dust-brown monotony that passes for a landscape in Iraq. The next...
(Soundbite of explosion, rattling)
SUTHERLAND: ...the debris rains down from a bomb that could have looked like anything. This one was hidden in a trash can. It could have been inside the body of a dead dog or buried under the road itself or even built into the curb. For a while, it seemed IEDs were everywhere.
Lieutenant Colonel DAVID BATCHELOR (U.S. Army): I've been hit 38 times in 11 months.
SUTHERLAND: In May of 2005, NPR talked with Lieutenant Colonel David Batchelor. He'd had more than his fair share of experience with IEDs.
Lt. Col. BATCHELOR: No matter how poised you think you are, the first five seconds afterwards is pretty exciting because the sound is enormous. It gets your attention.
SUTHERLAND: By 2006, the problem was even worse. At one point, 100 IEDs went off every day in Iraq, thousands each month. Hundreds of soldiers were being killed.
The Defense Department set up a special group, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, to tackle the problem. Lieutenant General Thomas Metz is now in charge it. He says he quickly came to an important realization.
Lieutenant General THOMAS METZ (U.S. Army; The Joint IED Defeat Organization): We're not going to defeat the IED, because it is simply a lethal ambush, and mankind has been ambushing mankind for thousands of years.
SUTHERLAND: Maybe not defeat IEDs, but at least manage them. So the military developed special jammers with names like Warlock and Javelin. They built special vehicles to clear the roads, and others made to withstand the seemingly inevitable explosions. But one of the most secretive and lethal programs was Task Force ODIN - ODIN standing for Observe, Detect, Identify and Neutralize. Here's how Task Force ODIN works: Let's say the U.S. is being hit with IEDs along a particular stretch of road. What ODIN could do is let the military watch, just watch. They use off-the-shelf, wide-angle video cameras and special radar. They loaded these onto modified civilian planes, C-12 Beechcraft. They would fly over the road for hours or days, just looking for something out of the ordinary.
Colonel A.T. BALL (U.S. Army; Task Force ODIN): For example, a group of suspicious vehicles all of the sudden show up in a particular area.
SUTHERLAND: Colonel A.T. Ball set up the first Task Force ODIN in Iraq. He says what was new was the ability to watch all the time. It allowed him to learn what normal looked like and what it didn't.
Colonel BALL: Digging or laying wire or whatnot in an area where there is not irrigation canals, no new infrastructure being placed in - these sort of anomalies lead you to believe that there could be enemy activity there.
SUTHERLAND: And now we get to the next part of ODIN. The manned planes spot something suspicious, then the U.S. sends in an unmanned drone, like a Predator, to check it out more closely. And then another manned system is cued - this time, attack helicopters.
Col. BALL: At 3:00 in the morning in a remote area a hundred miles away necessitated me being able to dynamically address, let's just say, an insurgent force that's digging in bunkers, IEDs and an ambush site.
SUTHERLAND: When Colonel Ball says dynamically address, he means kill. And the military says Task Force ODIN has killed thousands of people planting IEDs in Iraq over the past few years.
So that's one scenario, kill the guy planting the bomb. But there's more ODIN can do.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Cutting commanded Task Force ODIN in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He says actually planting a bomb is the last link in the chain of events that leads to an explosion.
Lieutenant Colonel JIM CUTTING (U.S. Army; Former Commander, Task Force ODIN): So in the steps of planning, financing, gathering materials, emplacing and triggering an IED, you want to interdict one of those steps. And if I can take out one, then it won't happen. The boom won't happen. And the idea is to stay left of a boom.
SUTHERLAND: Staying left of a boom: That's stopping a bomb before it goes off.
Lt. Col. CUTTING: And sometimes you're to the right of one boom, but you use what you've learned from that to get to the left of the next one.
SUTHERLAND: So does that mean, like, you'll see something go off and then you say, okay, let's roll back the tape and we've been watching this road for a couple days or to see who was there and where they went and that kind of thing?
Lt. Col. CUTTING: Yeah, but I don't want to get into specifics on how we would do that.
SUTHERLAND: Conceptually, here's how military and other sources say it works: Let's stick with Colonel Cutting's scenario: a bomb went off. Remember, Task Force ODIN has been watching the area constantly with wide-angle video. That means they have video of the explosion itself and the area around it. They can essentially hit rewind and trace the bomber back to where he came from. Cutting says they can also do the same thing in real time. Back to our scenario: They've spotted someone.
Lt. Col. CUTTING: Just say, an IED emplacer, if I have the ability to find him…
SUTHERLAND: Then the colonel will watch him and follow him using an unmanned drone, like a Predator.
Lt. Col. CUTTING: Maybe follow him back to his cache site where he has his explosive devices. Where does he live? Who are his friends? And then watch him for days or weeks on end, if you really want to, if it's that important.
SUTHERLAND: The goal isn't to get just the one guy. It's to learn who he works for.
Lt. Col. CUTTING: Then maybe I can figure out who's paying him. And if I can figure out who's paying that guy, well now I'm starting to work my way into the leadership of that network.
SUTHERLAND: In Iraq, the most deadly IEDs aren't the sort of thing someone can cook up in a garage. They actually require some skill to make. That's what makes the network so important. There are actually a limited number of people who can manufacture the bombs.
Lt. Col. CUTTING: It's much more damaging for me to take a managerial-level guy out of their network than just some guy who's given a small of stack of bills to go dig a hole.
SUTHERLAND: Now, ODIN is moving to Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there, headed up special operations before he got his current job. He visited ODIN a few times in Iraq, and his group was the single biggest customer for ODIN's capabilities. And in Afghanistan, like in Iraq, the IED is the top killer of American troops.
J.J. Sutherland, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And as that program moves to Afghanistan, so will we tomorrow. That's where Marines on patrol spot roadside bombs with a more old-fashioned sensor: their own eyes.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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