WASHINGTON — Shielding troops on foot from buried bombs and killing fleeing insurgents continue to preoccupy Pentagon researchers charged with fielding new gadgets to Afghanistan even as the war there winds down.
Cheap, simple bombs formed from fertilizer remain the No. 1 killer of U.S.troops in Afghanistan, where 68,000 soldiers and Marines remain. They're scheduled to come home by 2014. Insurgents, however, continue to plant bombs in record numbers, and agencies such as the Army's Rapid Equipping Force struggle to keep pace.
The military has mitigated the danger to troops from roadside bombs. Electronic devices jam the signals that detonate some improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and armored trucks known as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles protect them from bombs that do explode.
"But goat paths and bridges are still a problem," says Army Col. Peter Newell, who commands the Rapid Equipping Force. "The insurgent's not going to quit."
So the military is rushing several new technologies to the battlefield of Afghanistan:
• The Minotaur. A remote-controlled, small front-end loader, the Minotaur has attachments that detonate bombs sensitive to weight and radar that penetrates the ground to detect buried IEDs. The Minotaur helps clear small lanes of bombs so that troops can proceed.
• A small, portable "line charge." This device consists of a small rocket that propels a rope filled with explosives about 80 feet. The blast clears a footpath about 1 foot wide, exposing trip wires and buried bombs or disabling them.
• A tiny camera-operated missile that can be fired at insurgents hiding on rooftops, inside buildings or fleeing in cars and small trucks. The Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System — about the size of a man's forearm — weighs just over 5 pounds and has a range of more than 6 miles.
Newell's group is also deploying mobile laboratories with small forges that can spin out devices within hours. One recent success is an adapter to recharge batteries used in hand-held mine detectors. Soldiers are encouraged, Newell says, to knock on the lab's door with ideas for new gear.
"We want to develop the little MacGyvers out there," Newell said, referring to the TV action hero from the late 1980s with a penchant for crafting gadgets.
Fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan has required foot soldiers to adapt to rapid changes in enemy tactics, the so-called "field craft" born of necessity for infantry troops, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy organization.
"You can do rapid innovation with infantry," Pike said. "The kit is small; it's easy to fabricate. It's not like they're creating a new helicopter. This skill is one of the great take-aways from this war. I hope they don't allow it to atrophy."