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A soldier is treated after being struck by shrapnel in a roadside bomb attack while on patrol in the village of Waidr, east of Baghdad. Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce, who was embedded with the U.S. military when the June 2004 attack occurred, recounts the event: SLIDESHOW: An Attack Unfolds. (Andrea Bruce / The Washington Post)

Correction to This Article
Army Spec. Hugo Gonzalez was misidentified in two photo captions with the Oct. 1 installment of the Left of Boom series, and his rank was incorrect on Page One. Also, in some editions of the Oct. 2 installment of the series, the full name of an EFP, a type of weapon used by insurgents, was incorrectly given as "explosively formed perpetrator." It should have been "explosively formed penetrator."
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'There was a two-year learning curve . . . and a lot of people died in those two years'

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Ben Venzke, CEO of the counterterror intelligence group IntelCenter, explains how insurgents are using video cameras to document their attacks in order to recruit and raise money.
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  • Protracted discussions ensued at the Pentagon over breeds, training methods and cost. (A trained search dog typically cost $4,000 to buy and $35,000 to deploy.) The Marines admired an Israeli method that used collar-mounted radio receivers to control their dogs, but the animals' linguistic limitations proved problematic: Most understood only Hebrew. "We spent an unbelievable amount of time on this," a former DOD official said.

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    A Defense Intelligence Agency analyst noted in February 2005 that "off days will occur" with dogs, and that the "find rate" for buried explosives may be only 75 percent. Canine specialists disputed the figure but agreed that a working dog grew easily distracted after 30 minutes, not unlike a soldier watching an aerostat monitor. Ultimately, the task force agreed to finance 48 dog teams in 2005 and another 48 in 2006.

    Sometimes the most popular deliverables were decidedly low-tech. A pocket-size pamphlet called the "Visual Language Translator for IED Detection" was shipped overseas by the tens of thousands. Cartoon sketches showed various concealment options, which sympathetic Iraqis could point to in identifying bomb sites: a guardrail, a dumpster, a dead sheep. Cartoon greenbacks implied a handsome reward for anyone who turned in a bombmaker.

    And a phonetic pronunciation key gave every soldier the ability to ask, in Arabic, the question that might save his life: Weh-nil kun-boo-leh? Where is the bomb?

    ***

    Eighty percent or more of the roadside bombs planted in some areas of Iraq used RC -- radio-controlled -- triggers. Warlock Green jammers, which Army engineers had designed from a counter-artillery system, continued to arrive from Thousand Oaks, Calif., where they were largely hand-built by EDO Corp. and cost about $100,000 each.

    Because most RC bombs were simple low-power devices, using key fobs or wireless doorbells, more jammers specifically designed to handle that threat also began arriving in the summer of 2004, including EDO's Warlock Red and a jammer popular with Special Forces troops called the Mobile Multi Band Jammer.

    Col. Bruce Jette, who earned a PhD in solid state physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commanded the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, persuaded a firm in Las Cruces, N.M., to build 13 prototype Self-Screening Vehicle Jammers in six weeks for $350,000. Hundreds more would be built and shipped to Iraq. A similar jammer called the IED Counter Electronic Device (ICE) found favor with the Marines, along with a later modification dubbed MICE. (A disdainful competitor insisted it should be called LICE.) Jammers proliferated, in number and in variety.

    Votel and his task force had long planned to underwrite a single powerful jammer that would cover as much of the RC spectrum as possible and simplify military logistics. On Dec. 1, 2004, the Army notified industry that it intended to phase out Warlock production in anticipation of buying a common jammer, which would be called Duke. Within days, EDO signaled that it would begin laying off workers, a development so alarming to Duncan Hunter that he blocked an Army request to reprogram $2 billion.

    In a stormy, profane confrontation, Votel and Robert Simmons, staff director of the Armed Services Committee, argued over jammer policy, according to two participants in the session. "We have a strategy here," Votel pleaded. "Let us get started on this."

    But initial tests on a Duke prototype seemed inconclusive to Simmons. "This is unproven," he told Votel. "We've already seen testing problems. We've got something that's proven to work within a limited spectrum, and you're going to stop that?"

    Votel called Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff. Hunter and his staff were adamant about shipping more Warlocks into the theater quickly, he reported. Cody called Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who agreed to keep the Warlock line open. Hunter lifted his hold on the Army reprogramming request, and on Jan. 13, 2005, the Army placed a $56 million order with EDO for 1,440 more Warlocks, evenly divided between Greens and Reds.

    ***

    Votel liked Simmons, and he admired Hunter's passionate interest in combat procurement. But he felt deep frustration about his inability to convey the complexity of the electromagnetic challenge in Iraq. "I fully admit that I'm a C student on this," he often said, and joked that "I should have paid more attention in electrical engineering class" at West Point. But when another committee staffer insisted, "You know, this isn't rocket science," Votel snapped, "Actually, this is rocket science. This is a hard freaking problem." Lives and billions of dollars were at stake.

    Soldiers in the 1-12 of the 1st Cavalry Division of the Army, based in Baghdad, after performing a test on the hands of two men pulled over at a check point, guard one of the detained men.
    Soldiers searching for suspicious-looking people along Baghdad's "IED Alley," named for the many improvised explosive devices found on the road, detain a man at a checkpoint after his hands tested positive for explosive matter.(Andrea Bruce)
    The hard problem grew harder by the week. An XVIII Airborne Corps analysis showed that U.S. troops in Iraq were struggling to manage 82,000 radio frequencies, including jammers and communication channels. They also tried to juggle more than 300 databases, such as IED spreadsheets, many of which were not interoperable.

    The proliferation of low-power jammers such as Warlock Red and ICE had the salutary effect of nearly eliminating low-power, radio-controlled IEDs. From a substantial majority of RC devices in June 2004, low-power would decline to about 6 percent by the summer of 2005, at a time when the Pentagon reported 4,200 portable electronic jammers in Iraq.

    But, as always, insurgents adapted quickly. High-power RC devices proliferated, against which many U.S. jammers were inadequate. By increasing the power of the radio transmitters and switching to a higher frequency -- a simple spectrum analyzer could show a bombmaker the range in which the jammers operated -- the insurgents soon countered the countermeasure, again.

    It was painfully obvious that many in the Army had forgotten that the electromagnetic spectrum could be a battle space. Except for artillery direction-finding and signals intelligence such as eavesdropping, Army electronic warfare expertise and equipment had atrophied as the Soviet threat dissolved after the Cold War. "This was fine for the environment of 1990, and it was fine for the environment of 2002," said Rear Adm. Arch Macy, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Washington. "Then we got to 2003, and the beggars changed the rules of the game."

    By early 2005, an Army scientist said, "when it came to dealing with the electromagnetic spectrum, the Army didn't have the competency." The Marines were hardly better. A former Marine commander said that when jammers arrived in his regiment, "all we knew was that a box would show up that made the vehicles hotter."

    If only two jammers were available for a four-Humvee convoy, should they go on the first and last vehicles? The first two? The two in the middle? How far apart should the vehicles travel? How fast?

    "These things were not known," the retired admiral said. No system existed to train the force. "The tasks were pretty basic," a Navy captain added. "How do you make sure the jammer power is on? Check for proper air flow through the system? How do you know it's working? . . . Tactical employment was largely run by rumors about what worked and what didn't."

    As more jammers arrived through the winter, soldiers complained that the boxes sometimes blocked radio transmissions, other jammers and Blue Force Tracker, a satellite-based system that showed commanders the precise location of their troops. "There was no coordination," Macy said. Jammers "interfered with each other, they interfered with other gear, VHF radios, Blue Force Tracker. . . . This was happening more than acceptable. And acceptable is almost zero."

    For patrol leaders, "it was either jam or talk," said an electrical engineer who worked as a defense contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some soldiers distrusted the jammers and left them in their shipping containers. "That's a terrible position to put troops in," the retired admiral said. "And it's technically stupid."

    Some veterans would later look back with regret. "The enemy can change in hours, or days. We have to be able to do it at least in weeks," said a retired lieutenant colonel who worked for the task force.

    ***

    More than 250 American soldiers would be killed by another type of IED that was spreading across the battlefield and against which even the best jammers proved useless.

    The first confirmed EFP -- explosively formed penetrator -- had appeared in Basra on May 15, 2004, and Votel had briefed Vice President Cheney in late June on the phenomenon, using a model to demonstrate how it worked. The weapon, which fired a heavy copper disc with devastating impact, typically used a passive infrared trigger that detonated the bomb when a sensor detected radiation from a warm passing object, such as a Humvee. Because no radio waves were involved, jammers had no effect.

    A Defense Intelligence Agency weapons team had noted in the late 1990s that EFPs with infrared triggers were used by Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces against the Israelis in southern Lebanon at least as early as 1997. The few EFPs that were in Iraq during the early summer of 2004 invariably appeared in Shiite-controlled areas near the Iranian border, such as Basra and southeast Baghdad. That suggested "international linkages" to Iran, Votel told Cheney.

    A colonel at the Israeli Embassy had repeatedly warned the task force about infrared-triggered EFPs. "He and other Israelis were pounding on the desk, saying, 'Listen, we've already been through this historically. This is what's going to happen next,' " a task force officer later recalled.

    "We should never have been surprised by that," an Army colonel with long experience in Iraq and Afghanistan added. "But until it became a reality, people really paid no attention."

    A senior Centcom officer concurred. "We honestly did not believe that these guys were capable of doing this kind of stuff. . . . We underestimated them." But as EFP numbers began to inch up, intelligence reports indicated that CD-ROMs on how to construct an EFP were circulating among insurgent cells; one bombmaker reputedly held a doctorate in electrical engineering from Baghdad University. After a particularly sober briefing, Smith responded simply, "Holy cow."

    By early 2005, what one officer had described as "an ominous thing on the horizon" was moving to the foreground in Iraq. Most EFPs were built with several pounds of pure copper, either milled or punched with a 20-ton hydraulic press into a concave disc with a 140-degree angle, two to 11 inches in diameter. Triggered by the infrared sensor, a blasting cap in turn set off explosives packed behind the copper disc -- known as a liner -- inside a steel or plastic pipe. The detonation wave, moving at 8,000 meters per second, struck the liner, which inverted into a tadpole-shaped slug.

    An EFP eight inches in diameter threw a seven-pound copper slug at Mach 6, or 2,000 meters per second. (A .50-caliber bullet, among the most devastating projectiles on the battlefield, weighs less than two ounces and has a muzzle velocity of 900 meters per second.) Unlike an armor-killing shaped charge, the EFP warhead did not turn into a plasma jet, but remained semi-molten. Copper was preferred because it is ductile and malleable, and does not shatter like steel. Typically fired at ranges from five to 10 meters, the slug could punch through several inches of armor, spraying metal shards across the crew compartment.

    Beginning in early June 2004, insurgents often placed EFPs together for a shotgun effect. Many EFPs were hidden in foam blocks, carefully shaped to look like roadside rocks or curbstones; often the only telltale sign was a half-dollar-sized hole bored through the foam for the passive infrared lens, which became known among U.S. troops as the "Eye of Allah."

    Debate intensified within the U.S. government over Iran's role in distributing EFPs. Abizaid was skeptical until British troops reportedly captured a cache of copper discs along Iraq's southeastern border. Other evidence accumulated. For example, according to a former DIA analyst, the C-4 plastic explosive found in some EFPs chemically matched that sold by Tehran's Defense Industries Organization and identified by specific lot numbers. Intelligence also indicated the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was training and giving explosives to certain Iraqi Shiite groups, a senior DOD official said.

    Still, Abizaid advocated a measured response. Iran after all could have supplied anti-ship or anti-tank missiles that would be far deadlier to U.S. forces. EFPs were a tiny percentage of all IEDs -- more than an annoyance but less than a casus belli. "You know they're doing it, but you don't know that you want to go to war over it," he said. "The vast majority of problems in Iraq are generated in Iraq by the body politic."

    Votel nonetheless felt pressure to find a remedy. Month by month, EFPs were better camouflaged and more effective. In February 2005, he sent a lieutenant colonel to Tel Aviv. The Israeli solution to IEDs often included using armored bulldozers to scrape away the top 18 inches of earth where bombs might be hidden, according to an Israeli engineer colonel. That tactic had limited utility in Iraqi cities, but Israel also had made technological strides.

    Votel's emissary examined six promising counter-IED systems. Under an agreement with the defense ministry, for about $1 million Israeli engineers would bring four of them to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona for further testing. System names would be changed to conceal the Israeli connection, so that a microwave gadget called VOW became Dragon Spike I, and MACE -- Microwave Against Concealed Electronics -- became Dragon Spike II. The testing was scheduled for June 2005.

    By the end of May, IED attacks in Iraq exceeded 1,000 a month. President Bush declared Memorial Day "a day of prayer for permanent peace." Without mentioning Iraq or Afghanistan, he asked Americans to observe a "national moment of remembrance."

    The vice president was more upbeat. Appearing as a Memorial Day guest on "Larry King Live," Cheney predicted, "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

    Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

    Yesterday: Out of control

    Tuesday: A blast from below


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