Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Military Might: Combatting New and Old Threats

Reading a series of reports from different organizations this morning, I saw an interesting grouping of subjects.

The first report indicates that four Marines were killed over Sunday and Monday in Anbar province in Iraq by IEDs. Roadside bombs kill four marines in Iraq - Yahoo! News

Time does a follow up piece on Spc Braddock who lost a leg in Iraq, January 13, 2005. Scars of War:

Is Braddock avoiding bigger issues in his life? Probably. He went to see a military psychologist. Didn't like him. He has no time for pity, his own or others'. While fellow amputees were offering encouragement to other survivors at Brooke, his bedside talks were sometimes brutal. "I made it a point to bitch out people who are giving up on themselves," he says. "I told them, 'You know the difference between amputees and cripples? A cripple is someone who gives up.'" Last May, three months after his surgery, he hiked up Washington's Mount St. Helens with his prosthetic leg just to prove that he could do it. "You suck it up and drive on," he says. His mom says he is blessed in his positive attitude. "One of the things that always helped Matthew is he never looked back," she says.

What worries him now is the waiver he needs to get into the Army with a prosthetic leg. Failing that, he might return to Texas, learn some Spanish and try for a border-patrol job. There is no girlfriend in his life. "With this chubby Irish mug?" he asks, noting the 20 lbs. he has put on since his accident. But the ladies do take notice, he admits. "I tell girls I got blown up by an antitank mine in Iraq. It's cheesy, but it works." And he really has drunk out of his prosthetic leg--although he has learned to use a spare one so he doesn't have to walk around with a beer-soaked sock. "Made that mistake once," he says. How much beer does a leg hold, we ask, suspecting a trick. "More than a pitcher," he answers with a perfectly straight face.

Read the rest because I think it is very inspiring. A quick photo essay is here.

The military is not unmindful of the problems caused by these weapons and has come up with a number of old and new solutions to combat them. In fact, according to the New York Times, the Pentagon is expanding it's program spending to $3.5 billion this year to counter the the "no. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq":

The move is a tacit acknowledgment that despite years of rising death tolls from the devices, the response has not been sufficiently focused or coordinated at the highest levels. And it comes in addition to recent spending to get more and better armor for troops and their vehicles, spurred by concerns expressed by Congress and the American public.[snip]

In the next few months, the Defense Department plans to double the number of technical, forensic and intelligence specialists assigned to the problem, to about 360 military service members and contractors in the United States and Iraq. Hundreds of other experts are being called in, including more than are currently involved from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. New technology and training techniques are also quickly being pushed into service.

The increased response comes after the number of attacks with makeshift bombs against allied and Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians nearly doubled in the last year, to 10,593 in 2005 from 5,607 in 2004. The military says it is able to discover and defuse only about 40 percent of the bombs, and the result is deadly: 407 of the 846 Americans killed last year in Iraq were killed by the bombs, which are called improvised explosive devices.

Some of the efforts include both old and new technology as well as "anti-technology". One such device is the Buffalo EOD Vehicle which is seeing active duty in Iraq today:

The Buffalo uses steel wheels and disc rollers which allow the vehicle to be driven over and detonate anti-personnel mines without sustaining damage. As a result, unusually large numbers of mines can be neutralized in a short period of time. The vehicle retains all round (including roof) ballistic protection from 7.62mm NATO ball cartridges. This armor is upgradeable to protect against Dragunov AP cartridges. In a recent incident that involved a Buffalo vehicle which ran over an anti-tank mine, the blast tore off a wheel and destroyed an axle on the vehicle. There were no casualties to the crew inside the Buffalo and the vehicle maintained its mobility and drove itself out of the minefield. It was repaired overnight and was back in operation the following day.

Electronic jammers are being used to deny operating remote IEDs. In December 2005, Poland purchased $4 million worth of vehicular and portable jammers for use in Iraq. US forces also received new and improved jammers in December.

Another technology that is old and new is the landmine detector:

The mine detector, unique in its capability to spot the small, high-tech antipersonnel mines littering the landscapes in Afghanistan and Iraq, combines ground-penetrating radar and metal-detection technology to locate both metal and plastic mines lurking beneath battlefield surfaces.

This is more than a simple metal detector. It uses ground penetrating radar because some of the smaller, but just as deadly landmines are made of wood or plastic, a technique perfected by the German's during WWII to confound metal detecting mine sweepers. While the original article talks about combatting user problems, this article outlines some of the practical problems that have been experiences with previous land mine detecting systems:

"Existing mine detectors are based on a single technology -- metal detection," said David H. Fine, president of CyTerra. "Our system fuses together two sensor technologies -- ground penetrating radar (GPR) and metal detection."

The new system dramatically reduces the high number of false alarms that have been a problem with current landmine detection equipment. False alarm rates are especially prevalent with the current systems when you have other metal elements in the soil such as shrapnel or bullet casings. The new HSTAMIDS rate of detection is unaffected by such "noise" during the detection process. The coupling of the GPR also makes detecting plastic-cased mines possible and easier.

During testing at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the CyTerra prototype demonstrated a probability of detection near 100 percent.[snip]

Sylvester also said the new detector allows soldiers to be in the detecting mode longer because the system of audio tones used to alert soldiers to the presence of a buried landmine is gentler to the service-member's ears.

"With the old technology you could go about 20 minutes before you go tone deaf and have to switch off with another operator," he said. "This new system I could go for 30 minutes or more and not have a degradation in performance user time."

Of course, removing landmines isn't just about the safety of our soldiers in combat:

"The need for improved landmine detection is obvious," Fine said "More than 25,000 people a year, about 500 a week with one-third of that number being children are killed or maimed by antipersonnel landmines. Once a mine is in the ground it remains dangerous until removed.

Landmines were responsible for 34 percent of all U.S. causalities in the Persian Gulf War. There are currently 60 to 70 million landmines in the ground in 70n countries around the world. The 12 most affected countries are: Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Eritrea, Iraq (Kurdistan), Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaraugua, Somalia and Sudan.

There are more than 350 different types of anti-personnel landmines, many of which cost as little as $3 to manufacture and as much as $1,000 to remove.

Wikipedia even talks about the use of, not just dogs, but Gambian Giant Pouched Rats that are sensitive to smell and small enough not to set off the mines. There are also genetically engineered flower seeds that can be used in large mine fields and bloom "in distinctive colors" when explosives are located in the soil.

Another interesting concept to the "biological" landmine detector are bees.

Bees... can be trained in a couple of days to pick up the scent of the explosive in the landmine... When released into a minefield, the bees find their way toward the mines... [They] are too small to detect either with the naked eye or high-resolution video at long ranges. So instead, the team employs a laser emitter that sweeps an area like radar or sonar. When the light hits a bee, it reflects, and sensors are able to tell by the reflection just where the bee is. After sweeping several times, the scientists are able to crunch the data and see statistically where the higher occurrences of bees are located.

In controlled situations, the method is extremely effective: Bees can detect very small traces of explosive vapors with 97% accuracy and are "wrong" -- that is, passing over a mine without noticing it -- less than 1% of the time.

It might seem far fetched, but the military has been using different animals and plants to work through these issues for years including dolphins.

Other high tech items include robots for inspecting and disarming devices. According to the article, 150 have been sent to Iraq, but it appears these do not go with regular units, only trained EOD units that are called after another unit discovers the IED. In response to this item being so far up the food chain from regular patrolling units, some have come up with their own unofficial improvised explosive detector:

A young private [named "E.S."] in that platoon has one of those radio-controlled toy cars. When they find unidentifiable debris in the road, E.S. sends out his little RC car and rams it. If it's light enough to be moved or knocked over, it's too light to be a bomb, so we can approach it and get rid of it. If it's heavy, we call EOD [explosive ordnance disposal -- the military's bomb squad]. At night, they duct tape a flashlight to the car.

Of course, the lowest tech items in the military tool box are bomb sniffing dogs and EOD men.

In this war, there's a 50% chance, if you are injured or killed, that it will be caused by an IED. Not even suicide car bombers or VBIEDs are used nearly as often or successful regradless of how much they might be feared or how often they garner media attention. Although the military is advancing the amount spent on research, training and equipment, it's obvious we're behind the eight ball in recognizing the dangers or putting our money where the explosions are.

This could be due to a number of issues, but bueacracy is probably the number one killer. The unsung heroes are the men and women who put their lives on the line everyday, kicking over garbage bags, picking up dead animals and staring bombs in the face (literally) in order to protect the soldier on patrol.

Someday, I believe these men and women will be remembered like the helicopter pilots of Vietnam. Just men and women doing their jobs quietly in extraordinary fashion, little noticed by the rest of the world and unappreciated by even their peers until the day comes when history is written and the number of IEDs and other devices disarmed in Iraq and Afghanistan shows the extraordinary efforts by a few to save many.

Round up of other EOD articles at Defense Tech.

Finally, the military continues to look for new ways to combat old problems like Post Traumatic Stress which was once known as battle fatigue or shell shock. Some historical numbers seem to reflect even modern day problems:

Soldiers who enlisted between the ages of 9 and 17 were nearly twice as likely to suffer postwar disorders than veterans who enlisted at 31 or older, said study author Judith Pizarro of the University of California, Irvine. The younger soldiers also were at higher risk of dying early.

"Percentage of company killed is likely a powerful variable because it serves as a proxy for various traumatic stressors, such as witnessing death or dismemberment, handling dead bodies, traumatic loss of comrades, realizing one's own imminent death, killing others and being helpless to prevent others' deaths," Pizarro wrote.[snip]

The 19th century corollary for post-traumatic stress disorder was "soldier's heart," the study said.

The findings "strikingly echo the results of research into the mental health status of Vietnam veterans," wrote Dr. Roger Pitman of Harvard Medical School in an accompanying editorial.

He said the fate of the youngest combatants also was mirrored in the aftermath of many of today's conflicts: "Their immature nervous systems and diminished capacity to regulate emotion give even greater reason to shudder at the thought of children and adolescents serving in combat, which apparently was common in the U.S. Civil War and still occurs in some countries today."

Just another reason to give incentives to the older generation to join the military.

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