ABOARD AN AIR FORCE PLANE — Defense Secretary Robert Gates is establishing a Defense Department-wide task force to focus on counter-IED efforts in Afghanistan, where roadside bombs account for 80 percent of U.S. casualties.
“The whole purpose of this really, is to make sure that we get the troops what they need to protect themselves and also the tools to be more effective in taking down these networks,” Gates told reporters on Thursday.
Over the past few weeks, Gates said he has been worried that the various groups within the Defense Department working to fight IEDs in Afghanistan are not being properly integrated, Gates said.
Gates spoke en route to Oshkosh, Wis., where MRAP-All Terrain Vehicles are being made for Afghanistan.
The vehicles are lighter versions of MRAPs — Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — which were designed for Iraq but have proven to be too big and heavy for Afghanistan’s undeveloped road network. Most of the MRAPs in Iraq will return to the United States because only a few are suitable for service in Afghanistan, a recent Government Accountability Office report found.
M-ATVs weigh about 25,000 pounds, compared to MRAPs, which can weigh between 40,000 and 80,000 pounds.
Even though the M-ATVs are lighter than MRAPs, they are designed to provide the same amount of protection, said Andy Hove, president of Oshkosh Defense, which makes the vehicles. The vehicle’s structure is built to deflect blasts, and it has a shock absorber and seats that protect against blasts, he said.
Overall, IED incidents in Afghanistan have fallen from more than 1,000 in July to 704 in October, according to the Joint IED Defeat Organization.
But the enemy is using bigger bombs against U.S. troops, said Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, head of JIEDDO.
“It’s a pretty basic countermeasure,” Metz said last month. “We recognize the IED as a problem. We countered with the MRAP, which has saved a lot of lives, and the enemy looks at that on the battlefield and says, ‘How can I counter the MRAP?’ And his solution is a bigger explosive.”
Since Nov. 1, U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan have had the authority to compensate local farmers for ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which is used to make about 95 percent of the bombs in the region, said Army Lt. Col. Mark Lee, counter-IED branch chief for Regional Command-South.
Under the program, farmers can receive about $28 — twice the market rate — for each 50-kilogram bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that is seized by U.S. troops or which they voluntarily turn in, Lee said.
Gates added that, in addition to searching for the latest technological advancements, he’s also urging officials to look to the past for ideas.
“The mujahadeen used these same type of IEDS in a different form against the Soviets,” Gates said. “So let’s go back and look at the playbook they used against the Soviets to see if there something we can learn in terms of adapting our tactics and techniques and procedures.”