December 14, 2011

Pentagon program to limit the threat of roadside bombs faces budget cut

Budget hawks may cut back a five-year-old Pentagon program aimed at curbing casualties from the crude roadside bombs known as IEDs, a leading threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed trimming $265 million from the Pentagon’s $3.2 billion budget for the program. The Government Accountability Office and some think tanks have said it’s duplicative, raising questions about the long-term viability of the program.

At issue is whether the hand-made bombs, which the military calls IEDs, for improvised explosive devices, are likely to be continuing threats to U.S. troops, with the Iraq occupation ending this month and forces preparing for an end to the coalition combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The Pentagon created the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization in 2006, near the height of the war in Iraq. In the years since, the program has provided hand-held detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and other tools to help control the danger from the bombs, many of which are made with easily available fertilizer. Forces in Afghanistan encounter about 1,500 of them a month.

Their role in future conflicts is less clear.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Chris Perrine said, “We are not aware of any proposal to disestablish” the IED program. But another Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to relate internal debate over the subject, said, “decision makers in the Defense Department are in discussions about” the program’s future.

Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, head of the program since March, has argued that the bombs will be a global threat for many years. Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, more than 500 “IED events” occur each month.

“We are never going to stop all IEDs, but with a holistic, decisive, whole-of-government approach, we will significantly impact the effect the IED has on the battlespace and here at home,” Barbero said in an interview in the September issue of Ground Combat Technology.

Retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, a senior fellow at Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare, wrote in the December issue of Army magazine, “IEDs are becoming more common as domestic threats as well as overseas military threats.”

The fiscal 2012 Defense Department budget request had $3.2 billion set aside for the IED program, with more than $2.7 billion of that to pay for continuing or newly contracted initiatives.

The crude bombs cause about 90 percent of casualties to U.S. troops on foot patrol in Afghanistan. Military officials say the toll would be even higher without the increased intelligence, protective devices and disarming techniques the Pentagon’s IED program has helped develop and disseminate.

The House Armed Services Committee approved full funding for the coming fiscal year, writing in its report that it “expects improvised explosive devices to remain an enduring threat to U.S. forces.” The House Appropriations Committee also endorsed full funding for the IED group.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, however, justified its proposed cut by citing “lack of coordination” with some activities undertaken by the individual services. The committee report said, “The Army and the Marine Corps have pursued their own separate efforts to develop counter-IED mine rollers.”

The committee also noted that the IED program “was established in response to threats confronted by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq” and proposed that its funds be carried in the supplemental budget that finances the war activities instead of the main Defense Department budget.

The Senate appropriators agreed that the budget should be in the war account.

Outside Congress there are other critics. The nonpartisan Center for a New American Security, in a report written in part by retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, suggested that the IED group be shut down in 2017, with “its most promising technologies” integrated into the military services for further development.