Infantry: The Night Shift


July 26, 2007: There's a war going on in Iraq that you rarely hear about. It goes on at night, and has been very successful. While U.S. infantry and tank units make raids all over central Iraq, the other war, fought largely at night, by engineers and non-infantry troops (often artillerymen) serving as infantry, to catch and stop teams of terrorists trying to set up roadside bombs. The American troops are guided by an intelligence effort that keeps track of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) by type and location. Over 90 percent of IEDs do not do any damage to Americans, or anyone else. Many of these are captured, or at least examined remotely by a robot, before being destroyed. The intel people track changes in IED design, where the are placed and by who, and keep the U.S. troops who hunt the bomb planting teams. The intel crews also use computers and some fancy math to predict where more bombs are likely to be set up. This is based on techniques that go all the way back to World War II, but are much more useful now because of all the cheap computing power available.

This counter-IED effort doesn't get much attention. That's partly because it's a success, and success isn't as exciting as failure. Moreover, most of this action takes place at night, which, despite the 10 PM to 5 AM curfew, is still the best time to try and plant IEDs. Third, because of all the specialized equipment, technology and techniques used, the military doesn't want to reveal a lot of what goes into making the counter-IED effort work. That would enable the enemy to better avoid detection.

The terrorists know that the Americans have night vision equipment, and UAVs and manned aircraft overhead. The terrorists take for granted that the Americans can apparently see anyone on the ground, at any time and in any weather. But planting IEDs is a big business in Iraq. Hundreds are planted every week, and the teams doing it can make several hundred dollars if they succeed, and even more if their bomb actually kills or injures Americans.

While snipers and missiles are often used to kill the IED planting teams, it's preferable to take them alive. Some of these guys will talk, and that will lead to more people in the terrorist organization. There are plenty of other specialists who operate out of view, like the bomb builders, and the scouts (who find where to place the bomb) and the trigger teams who set them off. Most important of all are the paymasters, who provide the cash, and often the bomb making materials. Getting to more of these folks is the major reason for the recent decline in terrorist bombing activity.

The counter-terror teams don't mind working at night. The night vision gear takes care of the darkness, and it's a lot cooler once the sun goes down. Most Iraqis stay in at night, and the curfew keeps the roads free of heavy traffic. So there are fewer civilians to worry about. And each team gets a great deal of satisfaction each day their stretch of highway is free of IED casualties. The IED threat is greatest when troops go into a new area, and move around without benefit of IED patrols to keep the roads safe. The most heavily used (by the troops) routes are regularly patrolled by the night shift, and rarely suffer IED attacks.


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