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Bomb Buster for Iraq Hits Pentagon Snag

Army brass says a device that destroyed 90% of roadside explosives in tests needs further study. Marine Corps decides to bypass the bureaucracy.

February 12, 2006|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A new high-tech vehicle that destroys roadside bombs has passed a series of U.S. military tests but has not yet been sent into battle, prompting charges that Pentagon bureaucracy is slowing the effort to protect American troops in Iraq.

Last April, Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of a Pentagon task force in charge of finding ways to combat the makeshift bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, endorsed development of the vehicle, called the Joint IED Neutralizer. The remote-controlled device blows up roadside bombs with a directed electrical charge, and based on Votel's assessment, then-deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz recommended investing $30 million in research and sending prototypes to Iraq for testing.

But 10 months later -- and after a prototype destroyed about 90% of the IEDs laid in its path during a battery of tests -- not a single JIN has been shipped to Iraq.

To many in the military, the delay in deploying the vehicles, which resemble souped-up, armor-plated golf carts, is a case study in the Pentagon's inability to bypass cumbersome peacetime procedures to meet the urgent demands of troops in the field. More than half of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq have been caused by roadside bombs, and the number of such attacks nearly doubled last year compared with 2004.

The Pentagon has identified the improvised bomb problem as one of its top priorities. Two years ago, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, called for a "Manhattan Project" to cut down on roadside bombing casualties, but many believe that his level of concern has not been matched in Washington.

"There's a bureaucracy that really slows things down, and sometimes people don't have the same sense of urgency," said one officer involved in the effort to counter the bombs. "That's where my frustration comes in."

The officer declined to be identified for this article because he feared retribution from superiors.

The Defense Department under Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has faced similar charges of failing to act quickly to protect troops in combat. Dissatisfaction with the Pentagon's overall response to the IED threat in Iraq follows complaints about the military's failure to provide sufficient body armor and adequate armor for transport vehicles.

A JIN prototype was tested extensively in mid-September at the Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in the Arizona desert, destroying most of the roadside bombs put in its way. But the Pentagon's IED task force said that the device required further testing, and that a decision to delay deployment had been made jointly by Pentagon officials and commanders in Iraq.

"The decision has been made that it's not yet mature enough," said Army Brig. Gen. Dan Allyn, deputy director of the task force, which was recently renamed the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Iraq is "not the place to be testing unproven technology."

But the Marine Corps believes otherwise and recently decided to circumvent the testing schedule and send JIN units to Al Anbar province in western Iraq. Marines have been deployed in the restive area, home to the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi, since February 2004.

The Marines are now making final preparations to deploy a number of JIN prototypes to Al Anbar. Based on their performance, Marine commanders said, they hope the device can eventually be used throughout Iraq.

The Joint IED Neutralizer, built by a private contractor in Arizona, can be driven in front of a military convoy or operated separately to clear roadways of homemade bombs. The vehicle has a remote-control console that troops can use from a safe distance, directing it like a radio-controlled car.

A metal boom that extends from the vehicle's chassis emits high-powered electric pulses -- military officials call it "man-made lightning" -- that set off the detonators on the bombs. The JIN is a spinoff technology of a larger U.S. government effort to develop energy-based weapons that include lasers, electric shocks and microwaves.

Pentagon officials and defense experts agree there is no technological "silver bullet" for the IED problem in Iraq. Insurgents continue to build bigger, more powerful bombs, and have managed to carry out successful attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops even as the military develops new ways to counter them.

Although nobody in the military believes that deploying JIN vehicles to Iraq will eliminate the roadside bomb threat, many consider it among the most promising technologies yet developed, and question what they believe is a slow deployment schedule set by Army leaders in charge of the IED task force.

"The Army isn't saying no to this. They are just saying yes very, very slowly, and it's a tragedy," said a former senior Pentagon official who was involved in the development of the JIN last year and who requested anonymity because he feared that revealing his identity might endanger the future of the program.

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