Most improvised bombs used by insurgents are decidedly low-tech, jury-rigged affairs. A couple of command wires, some fertilizer chemicals and wooden pressure plates in Afghanistan; in Iraq, leftover mines or plastic explosives often detonated remotely by cellphone. But the Pentagon's bomb squad sees "ever more sophisticated" bombs on the way.
The next generations of homemade bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, will feature "hydrogen-based explosives; nanotechnology and flexible electronics," says the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization, JIEDDO.
That's for starters. "Future bomb makers" will use new energy sources for the bombs, like "microbial fuel cells, non-metallic and solar," JIEDDO writes in a strategy document released late Tuesday for its operations over the next four years. Also on deck for the bombs: "advanced communications (Bluetooth, 4G, Wi-Fi, broadband); optical initiators (using laser or telemetry more than infrared); and highly energetic and molecular materials." Sounds expensive, undercutting one of the bombs' major advantages.
JIEDDO expects the bombs to go off inside the U.S. - as the Times Square would-be-bomber attempted in May 2010 - and may occur "with concurrent cyber attacks." But while the bomb squad has lots of ideas about what the next generation of insurgent bombs contain, it offers few specifics about how to combat them.
JIEDDO has spent over $20 billion since 2004 on a variety of tech to stop the bombs, from sensors mounted on aircraft to find scampering teams of bomb-placers to "Wolfhound" devices to hunt their communications. But bomb attacks are at an all-time high in Afghanistan. And U.S. troops imperiled by the bombs still don't have a bomb detector that outperforms a dog's nose.
Whatever tech it's funded in the past to stop the bombs or find the bombmakers, JIEDDO isn't explaining what it plans on funding in the future. Instead, its strategy document lays out vagaries about what it'll emphasize between now and 2016: "research funding, collaborative development, policy direction, developmental contracts, information sharing, and venture capital investment."
"There is no single solution to defeat the IED," JIEDDO cautions, "because there is no single enemy IED network." There's no chance of actually stopping the bombs, which JIEDDO's chief, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbaro, likens to the artillery of the 21st century. But mitigating them is "an unceasing effort, making use of the latest technological advances," and requiring the Pentagon to "continually identify likely capability gaps and focus our supporting communities of interest to develop solutions."
In other words: JIEDDO isn't sure yet what technologies it'll fund to stop the bombs of the future. But it has created a handy chart detailing the military's "Future R&D Capability Gaps," which include "pre-detonation" detection; "the ability to locate, avoid, and neutralize IEDs containing nonstandard explosives compounds"; "the ability to neutralize IEDs before detonation or mitigate the effects following detonation"; and more.
"The goal is to provide fielded solutions to the warfighter between four and 24 months from requirements identification," JIEDDO says.
It will probably have less money to spend on closing those gaps, though. The new Pentagon budget cuts JIEDDO's $2.4 billion bankroll by $700 million. And the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will likely raise questions in a Congress that has long been skeptical of the organization about the bomb squad's continued value.
Still, JIEDDO has been beating the drum for years on the global proliferation of IEDs, far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason? Homemade bombs are exceptionally cheap to construct, averaging $265 in 2009, making them cheaper than most iPhones.
And while it's likely that all of the high-tech components that JIEDDO envisions for the next generation of homemade bombs will inevitably get cheaper, it's a little curious that the bomb squad sees the insurgent bombs going high-end. "Flexible electronics" will require a lot more cash than Pakistani fertilizer, a few two-by-fours, wires, a gas can and aluminum foil from a pack of cigarettes. And the gear needed to stop those other bombs is sure to be even more expensive.
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