By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- No silver bullet has seemed more alluring in the battle against IEDs than so-called directed-energy weapons, designed to zap roadside bombs with lasers, microwaves or electrical bolts.
"Darth Vader stuff," Rear Adm. Arch Macy calls them. But as commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Macy knows firsthand that the actual performance of such weapons has not lived up to their promise.
"It's very difficult to smoke things, as it turns out," he said. "Despite what people think, there aren't giant machines that can cut buildings in half and irradiate cities. The physics gets in the way."
Among the cautionary tales cited by Macy and other Pentagon officials is that of a zapper called JIN -- Joint IED Neutralizer -- built by Ionatron, a high-tech start-up founded in Tucson in 2002.
Responding to a call from then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz for U.S. industry to join the IED struggle, Ionatron sent Wolfowitz a video in early 2005 showing a generator, a Tesla coil to concentrate voltage and an aluminum probe from which little lightning bolts appeared to detonate blasting caps like those often used in bombs.
"I think this is hot," Dobie McArthur, Wolfowitz's executive assistant, told Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director of the Joint IED Task Force. "We need to move on this." Although skeptical, Votel dispatched a technical team to Arizona on Jan. 31, 2005.
Ionatron had originally proposed developing a laser weapon to fry a bomb's circuitry. But given significant engineering challenges and an overriding sense of urgency from the Pentagon, the company put aside that approach. The device examined by Votel's team -- originally called Pointman but soon changed to JIN in a play on the Arabic word for genie -- used "electrostatic discharge" to throw half a million volts into the ground to "pre-detonate" the blasting caps.
In the demonstration near Tucson, the caps were exposed on the ground's surface, rather than buried or hidden, as bombs typically are in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to several officials.
"We don't think this is as far along as they say it is," the technicians told Votel. The team returned to Arizona the next month for further tests, which also suggested that JIN was not a countermeasure that could be deployed quickly. That spring, Votel, McArthur and a delegation from Wolfowitz's office flew to Arizona for still another demonstration. Votel and his technicians remained skeptical. How would discharges of half a million volts affect power lines in Iraq? Gas lines? Soldiers? But to an NBC News crew also invited to view the test, Votel declared: "This is pretty out of the box, and -- this is what we're looking for, quite honestly."
On April 30, 2005, Wolfowitz signed a memorandum that called for funneling $30 million into JIN as a countermeasure with the potential to "dramatically alter the balance of power on IEDs."
Bold claims began to circulate in Arizona. "This will save lives the minute it gets" to Iraq, said Thomas C. Dearmin, Ionatron's chief executive, according to the Journal of Electronic Defense. "If you get enough of these out there, you will eliminate the IED as we know it." JIN could be safely mounted on an unmanned vehicle and operated remotely by soldiers in a trailing vehicle as far as a mile away, Dearmin told the Arizona Daily Star, which also quoted him as telling financial analysts that the Pentagon had requested pricing proposals for up to 2,000 units.
JIN enthusiasts suggested that the device could operate at 35 mph and destroy roadside bombs 1,000 yards away. Dearmin, who severed all his ties with Ionatron earlier this year, did not return phone calls asking for comment.
In four months, Ionatron built a dozen JIN prototypes, at a cost of $800,000 each, mounted on what looked like diesel-powered golf carts. The company leased manufacturing space at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. Then Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005.
Ionatron organized a rescue operation to truck the unfinished JINs to Arizona. Within days, the Mississippi congressional delegation began pressing the Pentagon to support JIN as part of a Katrina recovery program for the Gulf Coast. "Are you joking me?" Votel complained.
Moreover, additional testing in realistic IED scenarios at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and elsewhere "revealed that the system has limited effectiveness," a Pentagon document stated. "Additionally the system suffers from extensive safety and maintenance problems."
Another Pentagon document noted that JIN was "severely limited by the fact that the device must be literally positioned on top of undetected IEDs" -- within three feet, sources said -- to induce a detonation, a proximity that would "destroy the vehicle." After one demonstration, a four-star admiral said, "This is a Rube Goldberg solution," according to an Army brigadier general who was present.
Under pressure from Capitol Hill, Votel in December 2005 urged U.S. commanders in Iraq to accept JIN for operational tests on the battlefield. "You've got to take it," he said, according to an Army colonel then in Baghdad. "It's a huge congressional issue here." After scrutinizing test results from Arizona and studying what the colonel described as "two dozen safety precautions" that were required before JIN could operate, both the Army and Marine Corps refused.
The pressure continued. After ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and a cameraman were wounded by an IED on Jan. 29, 2006, reports circulated that the Pentagon was ignoring a countermeasure -- JIN -- that could have prevented the calamity, according two Defense Department officials. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 14, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) asked why the Army was "delaying a decision" on deploying JIN. She was told that any deployment was up to commanders in Baghdad.
A day later, two JINs were flown to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where "they were willing to try anything," the brigadier general said. Votel's successor, retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, believed that a field test would help appease Congress. That same week, a radical Islamic Web site posted simple and specific advice on "How to Disable U.S. 'Joint IED Neutralizer.' "
For 45 days, with help from an Ionatron technical team, JIN was tested in the Pech River Valley in northeast Afghanistan. At one point, three senior officers said, the kill switch failed and the device continued to fire bolts of electricity. Steep mountain terrain and poor roads also proved difficult; one JIN rolled downhill and flipped over, the officers reported.
Last spring, Col. Chuck Waggoner, commander of Task Force Paladin, the counter-IED unit at Bagram Air Base, ordered that the tests be stopped. "We're shipping this thing out of theater," he said.
In an interview last week, Meigs said: "We went the extra mile on this thing."
Ionatron collected $16.7 million for JIN, a company executive said, but last year posted $18.3 million in operating losses, according to corporate financial statements. Company executives said inexperienced operators played a role in JIN's troubles. "We don't think it's either accurate or appropriate to describe our work as a constructive failure, or a failure in any way," said Dana Marshall, the company's new chief executive.
If JIN has retreated from the Afghan battlefield, the dream of a directed-energy countermeasure lives on. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) inserted $400,000 into the 2007 appropriations bill for further testing of JIN, which was supervised by the Marine Corps, according to Pentagon and congressional sources.
Defense officials say Ionatron is trying to combine JIN with a cylindrical mine roller used to detonate pressure-plate triggers in front of a convoy. The apparatus has been dubbed Joller. More tests are scheduled for mid-October, underwritten with $1.5 million from Meigs's organization.
Ionatron also has recently signed Navy contracts for work on laser energy, a company executive said, and for development of the "Dual Effect Standoff IED Neutralization System."
Still, the technical challenges remain profound. "The laws of physics are the laws of physics," said Macy, the rear admiral. "You don't have to like them, but you will obey them."