As US death toll in Iraq hits 4,000 a system banned under UK rules tackles biggest killer
WITH the US military death toll rising remorselessly in Iraq and Afghanistan, American military commanders are increasingly desperate for new ways to beat the threat of roadside bombs.
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the single biggest killer of international troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States hit the grim milestone of 4,000 dead in Iraq yesterday, when four soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Baghdad.
Military technicians have been locked in a constant battle to outwit the insurgents. In the past, US forces have relied on jamming the airwaves around soldiers and convoys to stop their enemies using remote controls, such as mobile phones and garage door openers, to detonate hidden explosives.
Now they are changing tack, turning to revamped spy-planes which emit trigger signals instead, sources have told The Scotsman. The goal is to detonate the bombs before the ground troops arrive.
The EA-6B "Prowler" aircraft – which debuted at the end of the Vietnam War – have been refurbished with a top-secret signals system designed to emit waves of electromagnetic radiation, which apes the insurgents' triggering devices.
They are sweeping the roads ahead of vulnerable US convoys in what troops on the ground call "courtesy burns", because they are designed to burn up concealed explosives.
The tactic is banned under British rules of engagement because the pilots have no way of locating the bombs, or any nearby civilians, before they set them off.
The first IED of the Iraq war was used on 29 March, 2003. As four US soldiers started to search an Iraqi taxi, the vehicle exploded with an estimated 100lb of plastic explosives in its boot.
In 2007, 44 per cent of American deaths were blamed on an IED. That grew to 55 per cent in the first months of 2008.
Figures show that 97 per cent of the 4,000 American deaths, a figure reached just after the war's fifth anniversary, have happened since George Bush, the US president, declared an end to "major combat" in Iraq in 2003.
The White House called the milestone a "sober moment" yesterday. While over 58,000 US personnel died in the Vietnam War, it will refocus attention on the costs in Iraq. Last year was the deadliest yet for US troops, with 901 killed.
Mr Bush spent time every day thinking about those who had lost their lives, a White House spokesman said.
"He bears the responsibility for the decisions that he made," Dana Perino said. "He also bears the responsibility to continue to focus on succeeding."
Dick Cheney, the US vice- president and one of the main architects of the war, said: "You regret every casualty, every loss."
In Afghanistan nearly 40 lorries carrying fuel to US-led forces were destroyed by bombs planted in a car park on the Pakistani border, officials said yesterday.
Bomb designs in Iraq and Afghanistan are often similar. The British and American governments have accused the Iranians of supplying the technology to both for bombs powerful enough to penetrate tanks.
American electronic warfare experts call the Prowler flights "IED defeat missions".
While it is standard practice for Nato patrols to emit jamming signals to stop remote triggers from working near allied vehicles, the US technology is so secret officials are banned from talking about it on the record, and the US has refused to share it, even with its closest allies.
But the Afghan ministry of defence confirmed that two senior American soldiers briefed the defence minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, on the technology last year. A spokesman said: "We discussed the technology that lets them control bombs."
There are four navy Prowlers in Afghanistan, based at Bagram air base. They are part of the 134 Electronic Attack Squadron, and they support US ground troops in eastern Afghanistan. The region suffered more than half of all the IED attacks last year.
Speaking privately, senior American officers claim that the idea is to get the bomb makers at the factory. "It's win-win when that happens," said a US officer. But civilian analysts insist that it is very unusual for insurgents to arm the bombs before they lay them.
The US military spokesman in Afghanistan refused to comment on what he called "counter-IED efforts involving aerial platforms", except that they made the country "a safer and more secure place".
British bomb experts insist the flights would be illegal under UK rules of engagement, which are much stricter than the Americans'. "It doesn't happen in Helmand," said a senior British bomb-squad officer.
"We have to ensure we know, and can see, and can identify who we are engaging. The only way we can carry out any form of action is if it's in self-defence. We currently would not and have not called in remote air to sympathetically detonate ordnance.
"Although there would be less risk to us, there would be more risk to everyone else. We like to do things up close and personal," added the British officer.