Electronic Weapons: The New JCREW Goes Wide


August 25, 2018: In mid-2018 the United States began mass production of a much delayed and now much-needed upgrade of its JCREW (Joint Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare) devices that prevent most wireless bombs from detonating. The $100 million contract covers production through 2020. This will equip American forces overseas as well as those of some allies.

A 2011 plan to upgrade the JCREW jammers, which are essential for disabling IEDs (improvised explosive devices) detonated wirelessly was finally completed in late 2017. This update was underway since 2011 but was delayed because, well, because of a lot of things. One of these was the appearance of ISIL and the continued popularity of terrorists using remotely detonated bombs. These jammers were very popular after 2001 when remotely detonated bombs became more common because so many new commercial wireless devices were on the market and easily obtained by Islamic terrorist bomb builders.

By 2011 JCREW 3.1 was recognized as a major improvement in jammer design because it enabled the users to easily add new frequencies to jam and was available in several versions. This included one that could be carried by foot patrols. More upgrades had been ordered but by 2013 it was obvious that work on completing and delivering JCREW 3.3 was in trouble. The situation was so bad that the project was assigned to another company. By 2017 that second development effort apparently succeeded and JCREW 3.3 went into production. Details of what caused the delays are kept secret as are details of how 3.3 works internally. This is standard for electronic weapons that the enemy is constantly trying to duplicate or work around. All that is known about 3.3 is that it is even easier and quicker to upgrade to add or delete frequencies as well exactly when certain frequencies are employed.

JCREW 3.1 arrived in 2011 after the United States had spent eight years (since 2003) and $17 billion to reduce the effectiveness of IEDs, especially roadside bombs. By 2011 that effort could be considered a qualified success but the enemy kept adapting so IEDs still inflicted casualties. IEDs had been around for over a century but had become much more frequently encountered decade by decade. For example, in Vietnam (1961-72) only 14 percent of combat deaths were from IEDs (especially roadside bombs), compared to 50-60 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was mainly because U.S. combat troops were a lot more deadly and the Iraqis and Afghans found that fighting the Americans directly was suicidal. So the roadside bombs and suicide bombs were seen as a more viable approach. But the Americans responded with several generations of jammers that have made IEDs more difficult and risky to use. There were also new training and road security techniques developed along with computer simulators so troops could practice under realistic conditions without getting killed.

Meanwhile, the enemy adapted. By 2011 most roadside bombs in Afghanistan used pressure plates or wire controlled devices to detonate these weapons because American jamming technology has made wireless detonation of the bombs so difficult. The Taliban had another advantage in that there was not a lot of old artillery ammo to use for bombs, so they had to use fertilizer bombs and all sorts of improvisations that created new and unfamiliar (to the Americans) IED designs, that negated some of the techniques developed for Iraq. Still, the roadside bombs remained a last-ditch weapon of terrorists who had no other alternatives.

By 2011 the U.S. Department of Defense had developed a third generation of jammers, to make sure the terrorists had to rely on less effective means of detonating their bombs for the foreseeable future. There was also an effort to make the jammers capable of collecting and analyzing electronic information (to locate the terrorists) or even prematurely detonate some bombs. It is believed that some of these “requested features” are what derailed and delayed the completion of JCREW 3.3.

Nevertheless, JCREW 3.1 was adequate for troop needs. That was because since 2003 the developers had all the money they needed as long as they came up with and shipped solutions as quickly as possible. There was a war on and peacetime delays and mucking about were not an option. For example in 2006 a major jammer innovation entered service as the JCREW dismounted (wearable) jammer. These cost about $99,000 each and had been frequently requested as soon as vehicle-mounted jammers became available. The wearable JCREW jammers are more useful in Afghanistan, where more of the patrolling is on foot. Since 2006 the wearable JCREW jammers had gotten lighter, more reliable and more capable. But after 2011 additional capabilities proved difficult to implement and getting from JCREW 3.1 to 3.3 took a lot longer and cost a lot more to develop and get into production.

JCREW began as a further development of the first jammer, the 2003 Warlock, which was not for the foot soldier and mounted in vehicles. The jammers quickly went through many revisions, mainly to add more frequencies and better software. By 2011 rolling along in a convoy, with one or more jammers broadcasting, the troops had an electronic "bubble" that made them safe from any wireless IED they had not spotted. It was not uncommon for vehicles to have had an IED go off behind them, the result of the IED detonation crew continuing to send the signal, believing that there might be something wrong with their equipment. In those cases, the patrol often turns around and goes looking for the enemy team. Supply convoys just continue on their way.

In addition to jammers like JCREW and Warlock, several of the U.S. Air Force and Navy electronic warfare aircraft were tweaked so they could perform the same jamming functions, but over a wider area. This was often used when American troops were in action against the enemy, shutting down IED detonation over the entire combat area, as U.S. troops moved around seeking out and fighting the enemy.

One problem with the jamming was that it killed cell phone operation, as well as the use of many other remote electronic devices local civilians might be trying to use. The locals complain to each other, but asking the U.S. troops to shut it off would be futile, so they don't. JCREW 3.3 was apparently working to do something to make this less of a problem.

JCREW 3.0 and 3.1 had lots of new features that frustrated terrorist efforts to work around. After 2011 most roadside bombs were set off via a wire connection between the detonator and a nearby guy pressing a button. This caused more terrorist casualties and generally made it more difficult for the bombers. Pressure plate detonation was less popular because the terrorists had no control over when the bomb goes off, and when it's a civilian vehicle getting blown up by mistake, the Islamic terrorists involved drop further in the opinion polls.

The big (non-secret) improvement in JCREW 3.0 was it was easier to add new frequencies, and the jammer interfered less with other military communications and sensors. JCREW was also lighter and 3.1 (which initially was just referred to as the portable version) showed up because new versions of JCREW could be sent out for testing in a combat zone. For example, a hundred or so lightweight JCREW jammers were first sent to Iraq in 2008 for testing. These proved very popular with troops who did a lot of their patrolling on foot. It's become increasingly common for troops to make long movements on foot, to conduct raids or just patrol. The enemy has lookouts who are on the alert for U.S. vehicles, not dismounted American infantry sneaking up on them. For a while, JCREW 3.2 referred to the heavier version mounted in vehicles. Early on 3.3 had various names, all of them more difficult to remember. Because of all the delays, 3.3 just came to be known as the New JCREW.




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