May 29, 2006
Searching for answers
Corps hopes firsthand look at bomb threat will spark new ideas in defense experts

By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Sitting in the rear left seat of a hardback Humvee, Cpl. Randall Harper recounted the three times that roadside bombs in Iraq shocked his vehicle and crew.

And that was just during a recent combat tour, his second, spent mostly in southeast Fallujah.

Harper, a radio technician with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, put his combat experiences to use in April as he showed a group of civilian contractors the damage and dangers of improvised explosive devices.

Over two days in late April, 200 scientists and defense industry experts, invited by Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center leaders to this sprawling base in the Mojave Desert, got a crash course on the bomb threat that some worry could one day be seen on U.S. soil.

During the IED awareness training, they observed combat scenarios designed to be more realistic, spoke with Marine veterans of IED blasts, learned about creative methods the insurgents use and examined new gear that explosive ordnance disposal teams are using.

Leaders here wanted to shake new ideas out of industry. So several times that day, they let them feel that IED threat, up close.

Harper’s group donned Kevlar helmets and ceramic-plated vests to glimpse what combat is like during training demonstrations in the expansive, growing set of Iraqi-style villages here.

Screams from simulated incoming rockets and the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire rang out nearby as he led a group of men and women through several buildings. Just then, an explosion burst inside a courtyard where they were standing, shaking them and the dusty ground.

“Did you jump?” Harper asked the visitors, their eyes peering from under the helmets and sunglasses.

They nodded in agreement and peppered him with questions about the quality of training Marines get with the new sets of training ranges. Compared with the initial “security and sustainment operations” training he had before his recent tour, “it wasn’t near as realistic as this one here,” he replied.

Earlier that morning, Harper and the group watched from behind a berm as explosive experts detonated four 155mm howitzer rounds “daisy-chained” as an IED. The ensuing fiery explosion shot fragments into the sky and left four craters 6 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

Looking at the damaged Humvee, which served as the day’s target, someone asked how an armored vehicle would fare.

“It saved my life three times,” Harper replied.

Bomb threats and trends

Blasts from the makeshift bombs continue to kill Marines, soldiers and others in Iraq on a weekly, if not daily, basis. “Their biggest threat,” Brig. Gen. Doug Stone told the visitors pointedly, “is the IED.”

An IED, whether placed on a roadside, borne by vehicle or carried by a suicide bomber, “is a booby trap, clear and simple,” Stone said, and represents the enemy’s asymmetrical response to overwhelming U.S. force.

“If the enemy had a B-1 bomber, if the enemy had a nuclear submarine, if the enemy had — pick your favorite weapon system — they’d use it. Absolutely,” he said. “They don’t have it, so what do they do? They create booby traps, and booby traps are over the top ... created in a creative manner.”

While the numbers of IEDs vary, “frankly they are all becoming more deadly,” Stone told them, noting that about two of every three attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq involve IEDs.

“This is clearly the weapon of choice,” he said.

Stone, speaking to about 100 visitors gathered in a classroom in the base’s new Explosive Ordnance Disposal Center, implored them to help look for new solutions.

“The simple answer is not a silver bullet. It’s not a piece of technology. It’s an approach,” he said.

“I need any idea that you can give to us,” he said. “We’re experimenting with anything we could find to save Marines and destroy the enemy that’s fighting to take them down.”

Getting ahead of the enemy

Corps leaders hope to get effective ways to defeat the IED and make recommendations to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

“If they’re good, we get them funded and we get them put in the field and we do it quickly,” Stone said. “This is not a stand-up, wait-for-five-years-for-procurement program. This is a forced march at Mach 1 speed to try and save lives.”

In bringing industry officials here, Stone wanted them to understand how an IED system works, starting with the well-funded command-and-control nodes with an elaborate worldwide distribution cycle that recruit and pay people to place the IED.

Among the latest is the explosively formed projectile or explosively formed projectile, a shaped, propellant-driven projectile.

“The lethality of it is significant. They are very effective,” Stone said.

The enemy finds creative ways to assemble IEDs, Marines say, using cell phones or cordless phones, batteries, trash, wires, strips of metal and other items. Often, IEDs are concealed in trash, animal carcasses and discarded ammunition boxes, or encased in concrete curbs and blocks. Sometimes, bogus IEDs are used to lure forces unknowingly into a kill zone.

What Stone wants is “a month’s lead” to get ahead of insurgents laying the IEDs. With that, he said, “then I’m going to live. If I know where an IED is, then my troops are going to live. If they step on it or if they run over it, and the enemy can’t actuate it, then our Marines and soldiers live.”

The Corps’ approach

The threat is a top government priority. The Bush administration has increased funding for IED threats and research from $150 million in 2004 to $3.3 billion this year, according to White House figures.

The Corps’ outreach efforts parallel, to a smaller degree, the broader Pentagon push to develop systems and technologies to counter IEDs.

The Joint IED Defeat Organization, an Army-led task force based at Fort Irwin, Calif., that stood up in October 2003, has become the center of the counter-IED effort.

The Corps’ efforts, driven mostly by the commanders here, somewhat parallel the Joint IED Defeat Organization, but without the big budget, officials concede.

Still, with new ranges focused on Iraq missions, and a new explosive ordnance disposal facility, the Corps’ premier desert combat training ground has become the service’s center for IED training.

Stone said he wants to break the IED cycle.

“I just need to slow them down and stop them,” he said, noting that “if you know where it is, you don’t go there. If you know who put it there, you take them out.”

And that’s what many Marines are counting on knowing while they train newly minted leathernecks, sharpen their skills and stay fresh on the ever-changing threat.

With another tour looming later this summer, Harper knows that his experiences and the training have bolstered his situational awareness “because I know what to look for this time.”

So, his group of visitors asked him, what do you need us to do to help?

“Anything to save Marines’ lives,” he said.

“It’s better to do something than not anything at all.”