It certainly sounds big league: tens of millions of dollars and the promise of a modern-day "Manhattan Project" to figure out how to stop improvised bombs. And the need couldn't be greater, of course; just on Saturday, another six soldiers and marines were killed in Iraq by jury-rigged explosives.But is the Pentagon really doing all it can to stop the weapons responsible for more than half of the war's 17,000 American casualties? It sure doesn't seem that way. Consider this story, from Defense Technology International.
The 1940s Manhattan Project is estimated to have cost $20 billion. In Fiscal 2006, the Navy plans to spend just $15 million within ONR [Office of Naval Research] on its new drive, with another $15 million to be spread among the Navy's five affiliated research centers: Pennsylvania State University, Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University, and the universities of Texas, Washington and Hawaii. [The Navy recently became the quarterback for counter-bomb research -- ed.] Another $15 million may be allocated to other universities outside the affiliate network.Keep in mind, the Pentagon's fringe-science arm is planning to spend $38 million next year on giant blimp research, and $200 million on "cognitive" computers. So $45 million isn't all that much, in Pentagon terms.
"When admirals start talking about 'Manhattan Projects,' do you know how much money was spent on that?" John Anderson, a chemical engineer and provost of Ohio's Case Western Reserve University, asks. "You can't have a Manhattan-Project result with a tin-cup donation... If you're going to influence the academic research environment, you have to provide some resources and a compelling reason for doing it."Of course, it'd be easier to ponying up the big bucks if there was some technological "silver bullet," some magic solution, that could instantly neuter improvised explosive devices -- or least make them easier to find. There ain't. Which is why the Pentagon is shifting its counter-bomb research "away from short-term solutions toward more basic research," the magazine notes.
After several open calls to industry and hundreds of proposals, the task force already has picked most of the "low-hanging fruit," according to the group's acting technology director...Proposals are becoming repetitive, he says, particularly in the fields of ballistic protection and IED signal jamming, areas where the task force has placed the most emphasis so far.But, even with these proven technologies, it's hard not to get the feeling that bomb-stopping isn't anywhere close to the top of the Pentagon priority list. Yes, an extra $250 million was sent over to the Joint IED Defeat Task Force in October, to buy more jammers. I assume that's on top of the agency's $1.2 billion per year budget. But even with all that extra cash, only a slim minority of American troops on the ground -- less than 15%, I'd estimate -- will get the jammers, which are one of the few proven methods for actually keeping the bombs from going off.And remember: getting these jammers to frontline troops helps in the war after Iraq, too. If IEDs continue to be this effective, you can bet, for the next decade or two, guerilla groups will start jury-rigging some bombs as soon as U.S. land.Meanwhile, there's talk at the Pentagon of trying to pare back its new destroyer program, aimed at fighting the Chinese one day. The hope is to maybe bring the costs down to a mere $2 billion per ship. Research and development funding for the Missile Defense Agency remains strong, however, at an annual clip of $8.8 billion. Should we therefore assume that the Pentagon thinks a possible ICBM attack is eight times more important than the roadside bombs that are killing our troops today?