FORT LEONARD WOOD — They are the leading killer of coalition forces in an increasingly deadly war. And with a surge of 30,000 American troops under way in Afghanistan, military experts expect the number of casualties from homemade bombs to increase even more in coming months.
The Counter Explosive Hazards Center is at the forefront of the Army's cat-and-mouse effort to defeat a weapon that in May alone killed 18 Americans and wounded 163 others. Headquartered in a nondescript building on this sprawling post about 130 miles southwest of St. Louis, the center provides soldiers bound for combat zones with the most up-to-date training in everything from how to spot and disable such bombs to searching for those who plant them.
"It's kind of an unrelenting game of catch-up" with the enemy, said Lt. Col. Eric Goser, the center's director. "The frustration is ... how do I get out in front of him? The reward is when you do get ahead of them for that minimal amount of time."
But Army officials acknowledge that many of the tactics and billions of dollars worth of technology developed to counter the bombs in Iraq won't work in Afghanistan.
Col. Scott Spellmon, a counterinsurgency expert, was recently appointed to help coordinate training and technology efforts aimed at defeating what the Army calls improvised explosive devices or "IEDS."
Spellmon led a battalion in Iraq, where he almost lost a leg to an IED, and recently returned from 15 months as a brigade commander in Afghanistan.
"I've got an idea from being a ground commander of what can work," Spellmon said. "I don't want to discount the technology. It's done great things. It's probably the reason my left leg is still attached. But we might want to put our investment elsewhere."
For Iraq, the Army developed heavily armored vehicles packed with cameras, electronic jammers, heat sensors, metal detectors, high-powered blowers, robotic arms and other gear to spot and neutralize roadside bombs.
To better protect soldiers, they replaced vulnerable Humvees with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs. They developed robots that allowed operators to detect and dismantle bombs from a distance.
But the large vehicles are largely ineffective in Afghanistan, a country with rugged terrain and few paved roads. Often, soldiers patrol on foot, making it burdensome to carry weighty, high-tech gear.
"It's much more difficult to get those systems out into the valleys," Spellmon said.
Meanwhile, unlike the asphalt roads of Iraq, the rain channels and dirt paths that pass for roads in Afghanistan are easy places to conceal explosives. "The ability to detect buried devices is very limited there," Goser said.
In Iraq, many of the bombs were made from old artillery shells and rockets, remnants of Saddam Hussein's vast abandoned arsenals. Many of the triggering systems were high-tech and could be operated by remote control, cell phones or even passive infrared initiating systems. Americans countered with electronic jamming devices.
In Afghanistan, however, enemy fighters have countered some of the Americans' sophisticated metal detection with some low-tech measures — for example, plastic jugs full of homemade explosives made from fertilizer triggered by a simple command wire.
"You're not trying to find that artillery shell anymore," Goser said. "You're trying to find a buried plastic jug, and that signature is difficult."
To counter that threat, the Army has increased the use of bomb-sniffing dogs and is beginning to deploy vehicles equipped with ground-penetrating radar. But, Spellmon said, technology isn't always the answer.
"The best detector we found was the local population," he said.
The colonel cited the example of the insurgent-infested Tagab Valley in eastern Afghanistan. In the summer of 2008, a 70-man rifle company under his command was the target of about 65 IED attacks in the valley. Locals revealed the locations of about 20 of the bombs before they detonated.
After the Americans were reinforced by a 700-man French contingent in 2009, the troops began going into the villages and helping the Afghan government build a presence in the area. Provincial reconstruction teams operated medical clinics, built a road and provided other humanitarian assistance. By the following summer, locals were reporting two-thirds of the bombs targeting troops.
"It was a remarkable turnaround for us," Spellmon said. "The people there wanted to work with us."
Each day, between 25 and 35 detailed reports on IED attacks flow into the Fort Leonard Wood center from Iraq and Afghanistan. Often the information is less than 12 hours old.
"We're looking for trends," said Goser, 43. It might be the type of IED, its location or the trigger used, "which tells us how to adapt," he added.
Information gleaned from those reports can be incorporated into training conducted at the center within two or three days, providing troops with accurate intelligence on the ever-changing threats they face.
Most of the 5,500 soldiers who have trained at the center this year are combat engineers responsible for clearing roadside bombs and the officers who command them.
"Tools and technology have their place, but they're not the be-all, end-all of war," Goser said. "It takes the person to think through these problems and address them. Technology is great, but it's still the human that needs to know how and where to deploy it."
On a recent, near-100-degree day, more than a dozen soldiers rested in the shade at a training area where they had been learning about the capabilities of the Husky mine detecting vehicle.
All of the soldiers said they were well aware of the IED threat.
"The better training we get, the less nervous we are," said Spc. Matthew Perry, a combat engineer from Cincinnati scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan around the first of the year.
Others expressed concern that the equipment they were training on might not be effective on Afghanistan's treacherous roads.
"We might get over there and not have the right tools," said Sgt. Russell Davis, a heavy equipment operator with the 54th Engineer Battalion. "It's bad enough you've got enemy and IEDs. Now you've got to fight the terrain as well."
Staff Sgt. John Noel was riding in an armored personnel carrier with four other soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq, in July 2006, when the vehicle passed over a manhole cover. The ensuing blast killed everyone but Noel, who suffered serious injuries and spent months recovering. Noel, a native of Rockport, Texas, now teaches a route clearance course at the center.
His message is simple: Be vigilant.
"If you don't think the enemy is out there watching and plotting to take you out, you're fooling yourself," he said.
Instructor Toby Frazier, now an Army Reservist, completed a tour clearing roadside bombs in Baghdad. On a recent day, he watched as a Humvee full of soldiers tried to locate a command wire, pressure plate, artillery shell and other telltale evidence of mock bombs that had been planted along a gravel road. From a distance, a soldier in the back of the Humvee used a joystick to maneuver a camera-laden robot into the kill zone. "If they make a mistake here, they can learn from it," Frazier said. "It's a lot better they make the mistake here."
Goser doesn't expect the enemy to let up in its use of a cheap, effective weapon that has caused more deaths and injuries than any other. The number of bombings for the first four months of 2010 nearly doubled from the same period in 2009.
"When you put more guys on the ground ... you're going to have more targets of opportunity," Goser said. "If you're an insurgent, you attack. And they have. But we've gotten better at finding these devices. We're getting better at what we do, and there's goodness in that."