Pentagon’s counter-bomb agency running out of money

Lawmakers slashed funding for Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization in recent defense spending bill.

The Pentagon will be forced to stop funding new bomb-fighting research, will not be able to send promising new technologies to troops in combat and will have to lay off hundreds of contract workers if more money for its counter-bomb agency is not found by the end of this month, said its outgoing chief this week.

Lawmakers slashed funding for the Arlington, Va. based Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, giving the agency only $120 million in the just completed 2008 defense bill, instead of the $500 million it had requested.

In his final press conference before leaving his post on Nov. 30, the agency's director, retired Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs, asked for more money "to keep the lights on." Meigs has spent two years as director of JIEDDO, and will be replaced by Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, currently the deputy commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.

Meigs said he was promised additional money in the 2008 war supplemental. But, judging from past supplementals, those funds will not likely become available until the summer, he said. JIEDDO has about $350 million carried over from fiscal 2007 to spend. Meigs asked the Office of the Secretary of Defense to reprogram additional funds, but that would only keep the agency running for about two weeks, he said.

JIEDDO faces fixed costs maintaining fielded equipment and funding its Counter IED Operations Integration Center, an intelligence office that Meigs said is vital to the counter-bomb effort. The agency is tasked with finding promising counter-bomb technologies, testing them and sending them to troops in the field. JIEDDO funds the maintenance of that new equipment for at least two years, until it is purchased by the military services. "What I can't fund today will not go into the field next summer or fall," he said.

The number of roadside bomb attacks in Iraq has dropped by half in recent weeks. Meigs chalks up this success to the surge of American troops to Iraq, an increase in the number of weapons caches discovered and a huge rise in the number of tips provided by Iraqi citizens. Today, it takes five roadside bombs to cause a casualty, versus only one when the insurgency began using such bombs in large numbers.

While Meigs said the American surge in Iraq has hampered bomb-making networks, he expects the proportion of casualties per bomb will be higher because the networks that remain are more professional. "We got a lot of the first timers and second timers off the street; it's the more serious folks, the veterans" who remain, he said.

According to Meigs, recent roadside attacks in Afghanistan have risen dramatically as the Taliban has stepped up its offensive there. Taliban fighters operate with a secure supply base in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

While sounding optimistic about the eventual outcome of the U.S. military's battle against IEDs, which cause nearly 70 percent of all American casualties in Iraq, Miegs said insurgents have a huge technology support base. Corporations worldwide spend $3 trillion annually to develop sophisticated new digital devices and electronic means of passing information.

This huge bow wave of investment in new information technology provides ready opportunity to guerrilla fighters for online training on bomb-building know-how and coordinating attacks in widely separated geographic areas.

The largest challenge remains finding roadside bombs, as insurgents have gotten very good at burying and hiding them along the country's roadways. "We still don't have a good way of clearing minefields. After all these years that mines have been around, an IED is basically a mine by another name," Meigs said. The laws of physics and the simplicity of the bomb's construction work against American efforts. "It's really hard to find tiny wires buried in the dirt," he said.

Meigs said his organization had funded a number of initiatives that provide to be failures, most having to do with attempts to detonate hidden bombs before American patrols reach them. One area of focus had been devices that send electric currents through the ground to detonate bombs. But Meigs said blasting caps that set off the explosives are designed to withstand a lot of static electricity and not go off.

The only way to win this type of war is for troops to get out, on foot, among the people and "not to ride around in where you can be targeted," he said.

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