FORT BELVOIR, Va. — The Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA) is building a counter-improvised explosive device (IED) training curriculum that prepares US and coalition forces to easily dodge anticipated wrenches thrown in theater.
Looking for buried explosive devices bombs isn't quite as simple as beachcombing for coins. There are natural and unnatural hurdles in such efforts, and lives are at stake.
Insurgents have learned to use non-metal items like carbon rods when building victim- and pressure-triggered IEDs, a quarter of the Earth's soil around the world has a high metal content that throws off the detectors, and a host of signals and frequencies in a battlefield environment can cause a detector to go haywire.
This is why JIDA and the Army Research Laboratory are working on making sure to ensure that every soldier tasked with detecting IEDs while deployed is prepared to deal with the unexpected or the challenging.
"There's no silver bullet" out there guaranteed to flawlessly detect and disarm IEDs, Gunnery Sgt. Mayco McKeever, from JIDA's J3 Current Operations Division, told reporters at a recent JIDA event at Fort Belvoir. McKeever is a resident expert on using the military's wide variety of mine detectors, including the Minehound, which detects underground bombs with both a metal detector and a ground penetrating radar (GPR).
The Minehound varies its chirps to indicate whether it's detecting metal or whether the GPR has picked up on something instead. The metal detector sounds somewhat like an unhappy Pixar cartoon robot and the GPR sounds like a turkey warble. Effectively using such a detector requires nuanced ability to differentiate the various sounds and what they mean, McKeever said.
Tom Stanford, the Army Research Laboratory's (ARL's) counter-IED team project lead for hand-held detector training sites, said the service is quickly expanding its training to incorporate the element of surprise and the ability to differentiate between a detector just picking up metal content in the soil or something more sinister.
"The Minehound especially takes a lot of training," Stanford said, and so the Army began to set up hand-held detector training sites around the continental US. Soldiers have to "determine is this a target or is this clutter," he said.
The training sites continue to crop up all over the US, Stanford said, but they also are set up internationally. An operational site was stood up just a couple of weeks ago in Germany. Another one is being built in Vicenza, Italy, and others are established in South Korea and Hawaii.
In a fairly new initiative, Stanford said JIDA and ARL are setting up training sites that incorporate highly mineralized soil that can skew the performance of the detector.
For instance, at Fort Benning, Georgia, trainers recently buried an anti-personnel mine and it couldn't be detected in an inch deep of highly mineralized soil, but it could be found in four inches of sand, Stanford said.
The training team has set up five operational sites in the US using a combination of basalt mined from a quarry in Massachusetts and black iron oxide to replicate the magnetic content of the soil with soils found around the world, especially in the Pacific theater, Stanford said.
There are 13 total training sites that have requested a highly mineralized training course and the ARL and JIDA have been moving down the list to set them up, he added.
Also popping up at training sites is something called the Squawk Box.The box is supposed to train soldiers that "you can still detect your target even in the presence of some type of interference out there," Leroy Finch, the box's inventor at the ARL, told reporters at the JIDA event. Essentially, it teaches them to keep calm and carry on.
When a detector experiences interference it will start beeping steadily. Soldiers standing in the middle of a minefield might normally experience a level of panic over the malfunction, but the detector is still able to make its typical noises underlying the beeping.
The lab has already built 20 systems and will build about 10 more.
The box could also be converted to backpack form allowing where a trainer to can walk by someone in training and create interference so the soldier experiences the element of surprise.
JIDA surged its training efforts in 2011, spending $12 million to send counter-IED equipment to home stations and predeployment training centers to ensure soldiers had familiarity going down range, according to JIDA spokesman David Small.
The majority of the funding provided 75 dismounted surge capability equipment kits delivered within 30 to 60 days, he said. The kits include IED training materials, tactical site exploitation kits, dismounted electronic jammers and hand-held detection tools such as Beachcomber, Minehound and Goldie.
Home station training initiatives are spread across 54 locations — 36 in the Army, eight in the Air Force, seven in the Navy and three in the Marine Corps — with infrastructure, contracted trainers, vehicles, training aids and after-action-review facilities.
The Joint Center of Excellence has provided training in 19 counter-IED subjects like the Dismounted Counter-IED Training — Master Training Course.
Overall training provided during pre-deployment has been determined as "effective and thorough," Small said, adding: "The best tool in the counter-IED fight is a well-trained soldier, sailor, airman or Marine."