Course of Action

To tackle the IED threat, the Pentagon first had to blow up its entrenched business practices.

There is a sense of controlled chaos in the warren of cubicles and closet-sized offices that make up the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, located in a nondescript high-rise a few miles from the Pentagon in Crystal City, Va. Cramped offices are crowded with too much paper and too many people. Harried employees jostle past one another in the narrow hallways. Everyone seems to be in a hurry.

JIEDDO (it rhymes with "pie dough," at least to most people) is an anomaly among federal agencies. What began in late 2003 as an Army task force of fewer than a dozen people to combat roadside bombs in Iraq has morphed into an organization of nearly 4,000 with a multibillion- dollar annual budget and few constraints on how the money can be spent.

The agency's mission is to lead, advocate for and coordinate all Defense Department actions in support of battle- field commanders' efforts "to defeat improvised explosive devices as weapons of strategic influence." In plain English, the agency's charter is to end, or at least severely limit, the carnage caused by bombs that target U.S. troops and allies, and jeopardize American strategic interests in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else. JIEDDO's staff tackles that mission through three lines of operation: attacking the networks of individuals who make and place the bombs; disabling the bombs or mitigating their consequences; and training troops in the techniques, tools and technologies that will further the first two objectives.

"If we try to treat the IED as a criminal act, we will fail," says Kenneth Comer, JIEDDO's deputy director for intelligence and analysis. Nor is it feasible, or desirable, to treat IEDs strictly as a force protection problem, encapsulating troops in increasingly protective gear and vehicles, which can limit mobility and thwart the business of winning over the locals. "We have to approach this as a wartime problem-it's combat," he says.

While evidence suggests humans have been crafting bombs since the 14th century to impose their will on other humans, what makes the 21st century IED so challenging is the scale and effect with which bombs are employed by diverse groups and individuals. Insurgents and terrorists aren't equipped to field their own armies, but they can easily build lethal bombs with the common elements of modern life. "You don't need military-grade explosives," Comer notes; widely available agricultural fertilizer will do.

It's a testament to how convoluted and ineffective the Pentagon bureaucracy is that Defense leaders in early 2006 felt they had to create a new organization with the authority to bypass standard business and acquisition processes to accomplish a battlefield imperative.

"You could be in regular acquisition your entire career and possibly never see your system go to production," says Steven Cox, acting deputy of the technology and requirements division at JIEDDO. Cox knows well the frustrations of the military's system for defining, developing and buying weapons. He spent nearly three decades in the Army, much of that time in the acquisition corps before retiring in 2004. "Years ago I started the guided, multiple-launch rocket system, a precision-guided rocket. We were supposed to have it done in 24 months. That was in 1996. In 2004, it was fired for the first time, in Iraq," he says dryly.

A 'Chaotic' Time

Cox was one of a handful of people who designed JIEDDO's program objectives and budget after its reformation as a joint-service organization in 2006. It was a heady time, and an enormous responsibility-the agency received nearly $4 billion in funds that year, transferred from the Army. In 2007, it received a direct appropriation of $4.4 billion. "It was wonderful, watching people really bloom-taking that responsibility and authority-and really turn effort into success," he says.

The sense of urgency was palpable. At 7:30 every morning, the fledgling staff of JIEDDO would sit around a plywood conference table and review the status of IED events from the previous 24 hours, Cox recalls. "We'd talk about what happened, primarily in Iraq: nine soldiers killed, two soldiers killed, three soldiers killed," he says. "A lot of people here have friends over there and they understood what was going on."

JIEDDO's efforts have been wide-ranging. The agency has invested in hundreds of programs, from radio frequency jammers and robotic technologies that neutralize or defuse bombs to research on traumatic brain injury and social dynamic theory. Its analytic work has contributed to the development of better protective gear and vehicles for troops and improved battlefield forensics, leading to the disruption of deadly insurgent networks and the front companies that supply them.

Given JIEDDO's broad mandate and substantial budget, large even by Pentagon standards, its early days were "very chaotic," Cox says. The immediate focus was to develop technologies to counter radio frequency-controlled IEDs, the triggering mechanism of choice in the homemade bombs that troops were finding in Iraq. "We were really making a lot of investments. Our main tool was our money," he says.

The organization's leaders invested in parallel counter-IED efforts in science and technology, because there wasn't time to pursue technologies serially when thousands of IEDs were blowing up every month. Not everything worked, but when technologies were found to be effective, JIEDDO was able to get them fielded. "Was that a misuse of government funds? I don't think so. One may work and one may not work," and nobody wanted to take a chance on betting on the wrong one, wasting precious time, he says.

Cox and others at JIEDDO are reluctant to publicly describe specific technology investments, although they routinely meet with congressional staff on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees to discuss their work. "We developed a system years ago that a congressman wanted us to develop. We put it into theater, and he [publicized it]. Within a week on the insurgency's Internet, there were countermeasures to that. We really want to be transparent, but these guys are not dumb."

Accepting Risk

JIEDDO could not be effective if it had to play by the same acquisition rules as other agencies. Its annual appropriation has been designated according to the agency's three lines of operation since 2007, plus a line item for staffing and infrastructure costs, but that's essentially the only constraint on how funds are spent. Even those spending levels are open to reprogramming with congressional approval. Within the operational categories agency officials can invest in the kind of research and technology they see fit at any given time. If they want to buy something off the shelf, they go buy it, although purchases of more than $2 million require consultation with Congress and senior Defense officials. If they want to increase production of an existing item, they can make that happen. Or if they want to develop something new from the germ of an idea, they can pursue that too. When new threats emerge in Afghanistan or old threats evolve in response to new tactics and technology, JIEDDO can shift gears quickly, canceling programs that no longer are effective and starting new ones that show promise. They can hire experts as necessary, for whatever period of time makes sense without having to go through the laborious, time-intensive federal hiring process.

"The thing that makes us so different is we do embrace risk taking-not recklessness, but certainly more risk taking than organizations born in peacetime," says Comer. "JIEDDO does not have a charter to optimize. It has a charter to defeat."

Several decades ago, NASA developed a matrix of technology readiness levels to measure risk and reduce uncertainty that things being put into space would work as planned. TRL9 is the most mature technology level. JIEDDO is willing to field new technology at TRL5 or TRL6 levels to achieve two things-give commanders a capability they need, even though it might not be perfect, and to get quick feedback from users in the field to improve the technology rapidly.

"We don't spend a lot of time testing-we do test for safety and performance, but we don't make sure it's the optimal system," Comer says, adding that could take years. "We take risks. There has to be an analysis process to support those risks."

That work is done by JIEDDO's staff of analysts, intelligence experts, technologists and operators-men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan clearing routes and defusing bombs. "My job is to remove barriers to making us function as a team and encourage new ideas," he says.

For Cox, a career acquisition officer, JIEDDO is the opportunity of a lifetime: "You will find there is no definition of rapid acquisition in DoD. We are a wonderful laboratory."

To guide the agency, Cox and others developed the JIEDDO capability approval and acquisition management process, which tolerates a high level of uncertainty while mitigating the risk. It accommodates two types of acquisition-rapid procurement and rapid development. For example, if JIEDDO receives what's known as an urgent operational needs statement from the field, it can go buy something off the shelf immediately or ramp up the production line of an existing item in the inventory. But if those aren't options, JIEDDO can invest in science and technology development to advance a solution as quickly as possible.

There are four attributes for rapid acquisition, Cox says:

  • Acceptance of a high level of risk, because the potential payoff will be much greater.
  • Willingness to enter the acquisition cycle at any point-if something is available off the shelf, then buy it, for example.
  • Oversight. JIEDDO does not have its own program managers, but instead oversees the military services' program managers who run JIEDDO programs.
  • Continuous test and evaluation to spot and correct problems quickly.

"In my mind, rapid acquisition is not moving money quickly, it's making the right decision at the right time to acquire a solution as quickly as possible. You can always acquire a solution, but it may not be the right one, so if you have to take a little bit more time, then you do," Cox says.

No Silver Bullet

To get to most of JIEDDO's offices, you first have to walk through an anteroom where employees and visitors alike must stow cameras, phones and other electronic devices before entering the secure facility. One wall of that room is covered by photos of the troops killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past year. The sheer number of faces, new ones being added with regularity from Afghanistan, men and women in their prime, is a stark reminder of the agency's mission. "An impressive percentage of the JIEDDO workforce has sons and daughters in the fight," says Comer. "It does tend to focus everybody."

Also providing focus is the "petting zoo" kept by Erin Piateski of the Technology Exploitation Cell. It's a large collection of IED components-cell phones, cordless phones, assorted command wires, telemetry devices, victim-operated pressure plates fashioned out of old tires and saw blades, and something called a crush wire. The collection is vast and varied, ordinary objects put to deadly effect.

Piateski maintains the collection as part of JIEDDO's work to develop effective countermeasures. But often, as quickly as the agency launches countermeasures, bomb makers come up with new variations. "The old threats don't tend to disappear," Piateski says. They do tend to morph into new threats.

"This week there's a new trigger we're interested in," says Comer. "We're now worried about something we weren't worried about three weeks ago." And so it goes. "There's no silver bullet," several staffers say.

JIEDDO collects and analyzes enormous amounts of data to continually gauge the threat and progress in defeating it. Despite the moving-target nature of countering an adaptive enemy, there are clear signs of progress. There were nearly 24,000 IED incidents in Iraq in 2007, a number that dropped to 3,099 last year. Likewise, the number of troops killed by IEDs in Iraq dropped from 575 to 48 during the same period. But as IEDs are becoming a smaller threat in Iraq, they're becoming a greater problem in Afghanistan. Attacks there more than doubled from 2008 to 2009, when there were 8,159 incidents.

But numbers tell only part of the story. As JIEDDO's resident surgeon, Army Col. Todd Dombroski facilitates investment in medical programs that not only will improve medical outcomes for troops but eventually will advance civilian medicine as well. He's especially excited about a limb salvage program that shows tremendous promise for rebuilding bone, skin and muscle after blast injuries.

"We can do proof of concept based on what surgeons downrange want," he says, noting the military services have to support vast medical programs and don't have the funding flexibility to easily invest in cutting-edge medical research the way JIEDDO does. Dombroski and his small staff work with field medical personnel; the surgeons general of the Navy, Army and Air Force; specialists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Walter Reed Army Medical Center; academia; and industry to cull the most promising ideas that could improve medical outcomes on the battlefield.

"We're able to take more risks than the services," Dombroski says. "We may fail. For example, some of the sensors we put on helmets [to measure the impact of blasts] didn't do as well as we would have liked. But that's OK, because we didn't buy them for the whole Army."

IEDs do more than rip limbs from bodies. They also severely bruise lungs, which become stiff and fail to function adequately, according to Dombroski. The ventilators available were too heavy and big to be practical on the battlefield, and were ineffective for prolonged medical evacuations, "so why not make them faster, harder and smaller?" he says. The new ventilators were so successful, and saved so many lives, JIEDDO is sponsoring work to develop ventilators suitable for children. Because many blast victims are children, Dombroski believes they will help troops build trust with the local populations.

Not all medical solutions are tangible. JIEDDO also tracks and analyzes injury data and funds research that has resulted in revisions to medical protocols-such as requiring periods of rest in certain circumstances-to lessen the impact of traumatic brain injuries. Dombroski, or Doc, as his colleagues refer to him, is passionate about the work JIEDDO is doing. "

This is my favorite job, and I'm never leaving," he says.

Sustaining that kind of enthusiasm could prove difficult if JIEDDO becomes a permanent agency, as many advocate. It's not clear how long Congress will tolerate the kind of spending flexibility that makes the agency so effective, and potentially risky. What's more, while the military services are reaping the benefits of JIEDDO's work, they also stand to lose money when and if JIEDDO-incubated programs are transferred to the services for long-term acquisitions.

"Frankly, that's a big problem," Cox says. Programs transferred from JIEDDO to the services thus far have been paid for largely through supplemental war funding-something Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Obama White House are trying to minimize. Getting the services to foot the bill for sustaining counter-IED programs will be difficult when they have so many other priorities.

"The things we have transitioned to the services we've done with a letter from the [Defense secretary]. Is that partnership? A letter from the SecDef that says you will do this? You would rather we work together to do that," Cox says. "I think that this is truly the missing piece of what we're doing in rapid acquisition."

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