Support: How Robots Defeated the Best Terrorist Weapon


April16, 2006: Robots and toys are saving lives in Iraq. The most dangerous "combat support" job is EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal.) These are the specialists that dispose of (usually by blowing up) unexploded bombs and shells still lying around the battlefield. In Iraq, EOD teams are also responsible for getting rid of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, usually roadside bombs.) These troops, however, suffer a casualty rate about the same as everyone else, despite working with dangerous explosives all the time. That's because of the robots.

What has made the job a lot less dangerous is the widespread use of special robots, which use a video camera and a mechanical arm to allow the EOD technician to examine, and even disarm, an IED from a distance. New electronic devices enable EOD to prevent wireless detonators on IEDs from going off, or even detonating some types. Details of many of the new EOD electronic tools are kept secret, since the enemy can develop countermeasures if they know too much about what EOD has in their tool kit. The EOD technicians have also found remote control toy trucks useful, for delivering explosives to an IED that could not be disarmed, and appears to still be under the control of enemy operators. The toy truck carries an explosive charge, and a wireless detonator, to destroy the IED. If the hidden enemy can see all this, and decides to set off the IED as the toy truck approaches, the EOD team has prevented the loss of a hundred thousand dollar robot, in exchange for a hundred dollar toy truck. 

The use of IEDs by the enemy just about doubled in 2005, to nearly 30 a day, from 2004. The use of IEDs is now declining, in no small part to the increasing number of them that are discovered, and then quickly disabled and destroyed by EOD teams. But the increase in EOD use, and the fact that most of them were spotted before they could go off, overwhelmed the U.S. Army EOD troops. Where response time (to a call for an EOD team) was once about twenty minutes in early 2005, it had risen to hours, at times, by late 2005. Part of that was due to the enemy getting smarter, and setting up fake IEDs, ones that were just fake enough to require an EOD team to be called in. This put more pressure on the EOD teams. 

To help out, the navy and air force sent in hundreds of their EOD specialists. Many of these troops were eager to help out. For one thing, here was a chance to do what you were trained for. But there was also the large number of new EOD tools (robots, electronic gadgets) that the navy and air force could only get it they went into a combat zone. The EOD teams in Iraq and Afghanistan got priority on this new gear, so if the air force and navy EOD wanted to get their hands on this new stuff, going to Iraq would do it.

Training Iraqi EOD teams takes time, even if they did that job in the old Iraqi army. Seems that the old Iraqi army EOD standards were quite a bit different, and more dangerous, from the American. So lots of retraining was needed. The Iraqi EOD specialists don't mind, because they get the American robots and some of the other gear, to use. This makes their work a lot safer, and they need all the help they can get. As more Iraqi troops take control of security in parts of central Iraq (where nearly all the IED activity has been), the Iraqis get hit with more IEDs. Indeed, the terrorists and anti-government forces went after the Iraqi army and police with IEDs, believing they would be easier targets than the Americans. Didn't turn out that way, as the Iraqi security forces spoke the language, and had an easier time spotting IEDs, or getting advance warning from local civilians. This often overwhelmed the Iraqi EOD teams, and American teams were frequently backing them up by responding to IED disposal calls from Iraqi troops and police. 

IEDs, despite causing most American casualties, have been an expensive failure for the enemy. The people who build, plant and detonate the IEDs are usually paid, and the pay rate has risen as more of the bomb team members get captured or killed. When only about one in ten IEDs actually hurts any Americans, the terrorist paymasters have found that this kind of warfare is too expensive. Worse yet, American counter-terrorism tactics have emphasized going after the bomb builders, and the paymasters. With more Iraqi police on the street, it's been easier to track down the bomb workshops, bomb builders and everyone involved with IEDs. All of a sudden, a dangerous business got too dangerous.