Beating the Roadside Bombers
How the Pentagon is fighting back against Iraqi insurgents' most lethal weapon
To prepare the guardsmen, Zajac and his boss, Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, developed a system called "theater immersion." Zajac and his soldiers have built a mini-Iraq on the grounds of Camp Shelby and De Soto National Forest. They built austere forward operating bases for the soldiers. They created Potemkin villages filled with friendly, and unfriendly, role players. Sprinkled throughout are mock bombs, lots and lots of them. Al Asad is the name of one of the fake villages. It has a police station, a mosque, and a dozen or so homes. Ali Al-Kaabi, an Iraqi immigrant from Seattle, plays the town's pro-American mayor who is locked in an unending battle with "the sheik," Ahmed Al-Kazawi, a Louisville, Ky., resident who plays the village's spiritual leader.
On this day, Lt. Jason Eichler of the Michigan National Guard gets to try to make sense of the conflict between Al-Kazawi and Al-Kaabi. In the exercise, Eichler is supposed to search the town, with the locals' permission if possible. The mayor is willing to let the soldiers search, but the sheik will have none of it. As the negotiations bog down, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Nelson's team drives toward the heart of the village in a humvee. When Nelson spots a rocket launcher he stops. Peering through the windshield, he sees a wire attached to the launcher: a tell-tale sign of an IED. He immediately pulls back--to the pleasure of the exercises' observers.
Unhappy with the intrusion into the village, the sheik orders a riot. Instantly, the 30 "villagers" --mostly residents of nearby Hattiesburg, Miss.--break out into chants: "Go home, U.S.A.! No more U.S.A.! Big liar, U.S.A!" And finally: "George Bush Ali Baba!" Carefully avoiding the rioting villagers and the hidden bombs, the soldiers begin their search.
"Think on your feet." The lesson of this scenario is that there are many power centers in every town--and many IED s. At the "hot wash," an after-action discussion of the exercise, Capt. Ken Sheets, the observer and trainer overseeing the exercise, praises Nelson for spotting the wire on the rocket launcher and avoiding an AK-47 booby-trapped with a bomb. "I am glad you looked for the wire," Sheets says. "You can't just kick things over and you can't just grab things."
As the group breaks up, Nelson admires how IED awareness is integrated into every exercise. "They really teach you how to think on your feet and react to situations as they develop," he says. And that, military trainers say, is just what they are trying to instill in soldiers preparing to go to Iraq. "It's about teaching the soldiers how to think, not what to think," says Lt. Col Alan Hartfield, a training officer with the task force.
The technological improvements, systemic intelligence analysis, immersive training, and offensive posture are making a difference, Votel says. After a spike in IED deaths in January and February, the numbers declined in March and April. Military officers hope they are seeing the beginning of a trend, but they caution that the battle is far from won. "We have made progress; we have a ways to go," says Votel. "There are a lot of soldiers who are still being hurt."
American military deaths from roadside and car bombs
[Chart data are not available.]
Suicide Attack/Car Bomb
Improvised Explosive Device
Source: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count