Third in a series
When Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson's Marines were preparing to launch a major offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province early in the summer, he put improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, at the top of the list of what to expect.
"I'm concerned about the IEDs, and I know you are, too," he told the Marines. "There's a hell of a lot of IEDs out there. ... And we're going to kill the guys that have a chance to get out there and lay them. But they're out there, and you need to know that."
They do know it. Since July, 40 Marines in Helmand province have been killed, and more than 160 have been seriously wounded, most by IEDs.
IEDs 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 against IEDs is still falling to them.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it a priority to get the troops in Afghanistan what they need to protect them from IEDs. "To accomplish this, I have ordered additional intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to Afghanistan," he says.
The new gear includes sophisticated aircraft with high-resolution cameras that can spot an insurgent planting a roadside bomb or sweep up insurgents' cell phone conversations. The Pentagon is sending more bomb disposal teams to pluck explosive devices from dirt roads before they kill American troops.
And if those teams miss a bomb? The military is sending more sophisticated electronic jammers that can block a triggering signal, preventing an insurgent from ever setting off a bomb.
And if all these measures fail, and a bomb explodes, there is a new series of heavily armored vehicles to better protect soldiers and Marines. They still may suffer some broken bones — but they'll survive.
Fusing Together Information
Part of the effort against IEDs in Afghanistan is run in the United States.
The Air Force in the past few years has set up what are known as "intelligence fusion centers" to pull together snippets of information — drone pictures, intercepted cell phone conversations, interviews with Afghan sources.
Col. Dan Johnson oversees this effort inside a large windowless room at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — the Wing Operations Center. It's one of several that the Air Force operates. That's because a growing part of the effort to destroy the networks and protect American ground troops comes from the sky.
Massive TV screens show live drone feeds from Afghanistan — streaming video of roads and suspected Taliban hideouts.
Those images are sent by drones and piloted surveillance aircraft. The Air Force has enough of these planes to provide 37 continuous patrols in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the top officer in the Air Force, says most are now flown over Afghanistan.
"We have sensors and we have 24/7 coverage again that we can use to watch the routes of travel and hopefully detect emplacement of IEDs or untoward sort of activity that might suggest that we should look at something further," he says.
Schwartz says aerial surveillance is just one piece of the puzzle in going after roadside bombs and those who place them.
"The key thing here is fusing this," Schwartz says. "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."
Inside The Operations Center
Inside the center at Langley Air Force Base, dozens of airmen are hunched over banks of computers. Each day, Lt. Col. Brendan Harris and his staff send out hundreds of messages to field commanders in Afghanistan about the threats they have uncovered.
"We analyze it and send it in real time or near real time downrange to people who are going to use it," Harris says — people like Nicholson and his Marines, who launched the operation in southern Afghanistan this summer.
"People who are going to kick down a door, who are going to go out and find the IEDs — the improvised explosive devices — that we're looking for; who are going to find bad guys, kill or capture the bad guys; 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," he says.
On The Ground
But some of the Marines operating in Afghanistan's Helmand province say they have seen only one Predator drone in the past two or three months, leaving the fight against IEDs largely in the hands of the ground troops.
The Marines frequently patrol with hand-held minesweepers, a version of what people use on a beach to find coins. But Nicholson says his best weapon against the bombs is what he calls the "Mark One eyeball" — the eye of a trained Marine who has been in the area for many weeks, is familiar with the roads and trails and knows where IEDs have been planted in the past. Insurgents frequently put bombs in the same places.
One piece of the puzzle that hasn't come together yet on the ground is gaining the trust of the local population. In Iraq's Anbar province, for example, once local residents began to trust the U.S. troops, they began to turn over information about the roadside bombs.
Another tactic that worked in Iraq: setting up operations centers on roads that allowed troops a view about a half-mile down to prevent insurgents from planting IEDs. But the military says it still doesn't have enough troops to cover the roads in Afghanistan.