The U.S. has taken the unprecedented -- and some would say questionable -- step of selling some of its most sophisticated counter-IED technology to the Iraqi government, equipping specialized police, military and interior ministry troops with electronic systems designed to detonate roadside bombs and jam triggering signals.
Officials from Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq announced April 20 that its foreign military sales office had sold the Iraqis 411 Lockheed Martin-built "Symphony" counter-IED systems. A few of the Symphony systems are already up and running on Iraqi government vehicles, the command said, with the rest due to be installed by the end of the summer.
"This system will afford the Iraqi security forces long-term, independent counter-IED protection and relieves coalition troops from this responsibility so the latter may perform other tasks," said Army Lt. Col. Will Flucker, the command's Symphony program manager, in an April 20 release. "This system is a critical part of security transition from the coalition forces to the government of Iraq and integral to developing [Iraqi security forces] into a long-term partner in the global war on terror."
But some might see handing over America's most sophisticated and top secret counter-IED technology to Iraqi ministries, whose loyalty to Baghdad is less than certain, as extremely risky. Electronic jammers like the Symphony have saved American lives in a war where the roadside bomb is the number-one killer, and the possibility that an Iraqi official could hand over the technology to an insurgent or unfriendly government is all too real.
"You have to assume that about the third one that we ship over there is going to go straight out the back door," said John Pike, director of the Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-area defense research group. "We have a fundamental dilemma here in trying to indigenize these security forces."
Due to its highly-classified technology, Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Ellen Mitchell refused to discuss Symphony's capabilities or the Iraqi sale. A 2007 Pentagon contract announcement called the Symphony a "programmable, radio-frequency IED defeat system that is vehicle mounted."
The Army's Flucker acknowledged the risk that the technology could wind up in the wrong hands, saying the $51 million deal had been inked only after "numerous technical and administrative delays."
"Most of the administrative hurdles are related to providing effective technology to the partner nation while ensuring such technology is not compromised and does not proliferate beyond Iraq's borders," Flucker wrote Military.com in an email response to questions.
The Iraqi system will incorporate anti-tamper technology along with a fill or operating code that periodically expires and must be renewed in order for the system to operate, and the use of "trusted agents" to handle, control and distribute the operating code, Flucker added.
And that accounts for part of the lengthy "administrative" delays that kept the Symphony -- which costs about $78,000 per system -- out of Iraqi hands for nearly two years.
"This requires a combination of technical and administrative controls that require testing and refinement before they can be implemented with a high degree of confidence," Flucker said.
Pike said that electronic jamming of IEDs is a problem of physics -- there are a limited number of frequencies used to trigger IEDs and the jammers attack all of them. So a Symphony winding up in the hands of the insurgents would have limited utility.
"Whatever waveform it is using to jam ... will by definition be disclosed to the enemy when you turn it on," Pike said, adding that measures to prevent tampering or unauthorized use seem to work.
"I think that they are secure at least to the extent that Iran can't do anything about it," he said.
The Symphony systems will be doled out to Iraqi special forces, ministry of defense officials and interior ministry troops -- including Iraqi army, police, national police and explosive ordnance disposal units. The deal includes a nine-month support contract from Lockheed Martin to "ensure the units function properly and the Iraqis can properly utilize the systems to their full advantage," officials said.
Aside from protecting Iraqi officials, troops and police from roadside bomb ambushes, Flucker hopes the deal will help get more U.S. troops off the road by freeing them up from the dangerous and tedious duties of convoy escort.
"Affording counter-IED protection to the [Iraqi security forces] has been a partnership endeavor from the outset," Flucker added. "Given the theater IED threat, the [government of Iraq] and the coalition have wanted to make this happen for some time now."