PART 1 | SUMMER 2002 - SUMMER 2004
'The IED problem is getting out of control. We've got to stop the bleeding.'
Sunday, September 30, 2007
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- By the late summer of 2002, as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington approached, an American victory in Afghanistan appeared all but assured.
A pro-Western government had convened in Kabul. Reconstruction teams fanned out through the provinces. U.S. and coalition troops hunted Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants in the mountains along the Pakistani border.
Among the few shadows on this sunny Central Asian tableau -- besides the escape of Osama bin Laden -- was the first appearance of roadside bombs triggered by radio waves.
There were not many. U.S. forces would report fewer than two dozen improvised explosive devices of all sorts in Afghanistan in 2002. But the occasional RC -- radio-controlled -- bombs were much more sophisticated than the booby traps with trip wires typically seen by American troops.
A triggerman with a radio transmitter could send a signal several hundred yards to a hidden bomb built with a receiver linked to an electrical firing circuit, which in turn detonated an attached artillery shell or a scavenged land mine.
That receiver included a slender box about three inches square housing a modified circuit board resembling a long-legged spider. The Spider Mod 1, as the device was dubbed, would remain a weapon of Afghan bombmakers in various iterations for more than five years -- and an emblem of defiance against the world's only military superpower.
Captured Spider devices were shipped to the United States for forensic examination. Maj. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the U.S. task force in Afghanistan, had a sense of what his troops were up against. "What can we do to protect our forces?" he asked his subordinates. "I'll take a 30 percent solution. That's better than zero."
Even that modest request seemed daunting. U.S. soldiers and Marines had no mobile electronic countermeasures capable of disrupting RC triggers by blocking the radio signal.
Bomb squads -- known in the military as EOD teams, for explosive ordnance disposal -- carried a feeble jammer called the Citadel, which created a stationary protective "bubble" around technicians defusing a device. But the few Citadels in service could not be mounted on vehicles to protect patrols and convoys, and they were too weak to provide protection beyond a few yards.
Special Operations units employed electronic countermeasures, and the Secret Service used powerful mobile jammers to shield presidential motorcades and other prominent targets. Yet such gadgets were few in number, much in demand and highly classified.
That left the Navy as a solution. For decades, electronic countermeasures had been a vital part of airborne combat for Navy fliers. Submariners also considered it a "core mission," as did surface ship officers. "It's how I deal with cruise missiles coming at me," said Rear Adm. Arch Macy, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Washington.
After a yellow Mercedes-Benz truck stuffed with explosives killed 241 U.S. troops in Beirut in October 1983, the Navy began investing in a top-secret program in counter-RC technology. That led to a family of jammers, known as the Channel series, intended to protect ships arriving at foreign ports where RC bombs could be hidden in the docks.