Despite High-Tech Help, Marines Confront IEDs Roadside bombs 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 is still in their hands.
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Despite High-Tech Help, Marines Confront IEDs

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Despite High-Tech Help, Marines Confront IEDs

Despite High-Tech Help, Marines Confront IEDs

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke recently about roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Those improvised explosive devices kill many Americans.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): And let there be no doubt that as long as our troops are in harm's way, the Department of Defense will do everything it can to destroy these IED networks and protect those heroes in the fight.

MONTAGNE: This week, we're hearing about the effort to find new tactics and new technology against roadside bombs. Now, we'll ask how all these efforts come together on the battlefield, or don't.


NPR's Tom Bowman has seen that effort from two places: One was an intelligence center in the United States, where live video streams show the Afghan countryside. The other was on patrol with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Human effort and sheer luck mattered as much as technology.

TOM BOWMAN: The first patrol we went on, we saw, I think, three or four IEDs. They detonated all of them. And with one of these IEDs, one of the minesweepers actually stepped on a pressure plate. It's a triggering device used to set off a bomb. Luckily for him, this pressure plate had no batteries in it, so it didn't detonate.

INSKEEP: So you've got people who are not only in vehicles, but actually on the ground, walking around with electronic equipment trying to find explosive devices before they go off.

BOWMAN: That's right. What they use is a minesweeper. It's similar to what they've probably been using since World War II, a handheld device, and it looks like what people would use on a beach to find coins or jewelry. And the minesweeper, the Marine with that device goes out in front of the patrol and goes out along the canals and through the cornfields and the paths that separate some of these compounds looking for IEDs, and he'll get a little positive. It'll start bleeping. What he'll do is start digging around there, looking for what's called a command wire. The command wire links the bomb itself to the insurgent who's sitting there with a battery, and he puts the wires together and can detonate the device.

INSKEEP: There must be no quiet moment or unsuspenseful moment when you're on a patrol like that.

BOWMAN: No. It's very scary when you go out on patrol, frankly. Sometimes they get some intelligence tips from people about where to look for bombs, but it is very, very unnerving. And for the Marines who have been here for a few months now, there's not a great eagerness to go out anymore, �cause every time they go out, they find at least several roadside bombs.

INSKEEP: Well, now, when these Marines go out on these patrols, who's supporting them?

BOWMAN: Well, there are a lot of new efforts, Steve. There's sophisticated aircraft with high resolution cameras. They can spot an insurgent planting a roadside bomb or sweep up their cell phone conversations. And the Pentagon's also sending a lot more bomb disposal teams. They can pluck a explosive devise from a dirt road before it kills American troops. And the Marines here say they're doubling the number of these disposal teams just over the next couple of weeks.

INSKEEP: So you've got some of these efforts. You've got some airplanes in the sky, at least in theory. Could you actually have people in the United States gathering real time information and getting it to the patrol in the field?

BOWMAN: You could, and that's happening. The Air Force started what's called intelligence fusion centers. They have several of them around the United States and around the world, and what they do is pull together all snippets of information. It could be everything from an interview with an Afghan source, an intercepted cell phone conversation and drone pictures, because, you know, a growing part of this effort comes from the sky.

And Steve, before I came to Afghanistan a few weeks back, I actually went to one of these intelligence fusion centers down at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. And you go into these centers, it's a windowless room. They have massive TV screens. They show live drone feeds from Afghanistan with running video of the roads in Afghanistan and suspected Taliban hideouts. Those images are sent by drones in piloted surveillance aircraft, and the Air Force says they have enough of these drones to provide 37 continuous patrols around Iraq and Afghanistan. General Norton Schwartz, a top Air Force officer, said most of these patrols in the coming weeks and months will be flown over Afghanistan.

General NORTON SCHWARTZ (U.S. Air Force): They key thing here is fusing this. 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.

BOWMAN: All this information, Steve, is pooled together in what's called a Wing Operations Center. And you go into these rooms, and there are dozens of airmen. They're hunched over banks of computers. And I talked to one of the guys in charge here, Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Harris, and he said they send out hundreds of messages each day to field commanders in Afghanistan about the threats they've uncovered.

Lieutenant Colonel BRENDAN HARRIS (U.S. Air Force): We analyze it and send it in real time or near real time down range so people who are going to kick down a door, who are going to go out and find IEDs, the Improvised Explosive Devices that we're looking for, who are going to find bad guys, kill or capture the bad buys, 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.

BOWMAN: Steve, it all sounds good back in the United States, but here on the with the Marines, they say they've only seen one predator in the past two or three months. A lot of it just falls to the Marines themselves on the ground, getting out there and going on patrols with their handheld minesweepers.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that there are so many efforts to get a technological fix on this, but in the end, it gets down to one alert person or someone who's not quite alert enough?

BOWMAN: That's right. It gets down to the Marines on the ground. General Larry Nicholson, he said his best weapon is what he calls the Mark One eyeball. A trained Marine who's been here for many weeks knows the roads, knows the trails and knows where some of these IEDs are being planted. And frankly, once you find several IEDs, you go back a day or two later and generally, they've placed the IEDs roughly in the same area.

INSKEEP: Tom Bowman, I want to sort through a couple of numbers here. The number of American casualties in Afghanistan is nowhere near what it was in Iraq, so that sounds good, but the vast majority of casualties that there are have come from these roadside bombs. So looking at those numbers, does the military think that their efforts are working, overall?

BOWMAN: Well, what is really needed here something you can't get very quickly. One is gaining the trust of the local population. We saw this in Iraq, particularly in Anbar Province, where I traveled with the Marines many times. Once they got people feeling secure, once they got people trusting them, the people would turn over information about roadside bombs to the Marines. They just don't have that here yet.

There's some first steps of people coming forward with a little information, but it's really not that much information. The other thing that's important here is they probably need more Marines here to cover this area. One thing that worked in Iraq was operation centers along the roads, where you could see down the road for maybe half a mile to prevent people from planting IEDS. But they say they still don't have enough troops to cover the roads.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman is at a U.S. Marine base in Southern Afghanistan. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome Steve.

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