I participated in a roundtable interview last week with Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force and the on-the-ground commander (until last month) of operations in Anbar province.
It was a wide ranging discussion, but what I'd like to share with everyone here is something that bolsters my original argument about countering IEDs and looks toward the future of how we're going to get our arms around the threat of roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
Kelly said trying to counter IEDs with high technology proved to be a never ending cycle of counter and counter-counter. First it was command detonation by wire; then it evolved into radio detonation with primitive signals such as garage door openers, then it went to cell and telephone detonation, then pressure plates, IR beams and on and on.
But in the end, what cleared the roads and wrapped up the networks were boots on the ground.
"It became an infantry, on the side of the road, going through the bushes kind of fight. The kind of fight that America has tended to stay away from because we have all of the technology. ... And everything they did that we tried to defeat ... they would just come up with a solution to that."
Kelly went on to applaud the AM General M1114 Humvee, adding that the MRAP, while effective, is virtually useless off road -- a virtual No Go for remote Anbar and Afghanistan.
"The 1114s are very effective, particularly from side blasts -- they're remarkably effective for side blasts. They're weaker underneath, we all know that. So the next thing was the MRAP. The trade off with the MRAP is that it's the best in the world at taking an under-carriage attack but it's also a nearly useless vehicle unless you're on a hard-surface road. Off road -- even on a dirt road -- you can move them maybe one or two miles per hour. Cross country they have zero ability. Are the troops protected inside, they are, and under ... all circumstances that's important -- but if you're going to surrender tactical mobility simply to keep people from getting hurt, there's a trade-off."
Kelly went on to say the Corps resisted the knee-jerk impulse to replace all Humvees in theater with MRAPs, since the M1114 is "actually quite good off road" and "quite good from an armor point of view," instead replacing about half the Humvees with MRAPs.
What ultimately defeated the IED threat and saved lives? Killing the IED network with intelligence-based, targeted operations and surveillance. It's like I started to say after my month in Ramadi in 2005: the best IED armor is a sniper team.
Kelly's thoughts on defeating IEDs and armoring against them are even more relevant to the Afghan debate. Let's not fool ourselves -- the same gang that wanted to pull out of Iraq during the toughest time there are now in charge of the Afghan fight. We can debate the larger issues in this later, but what do you think will happen when more pictures and videos of twisted Humvee hulks and four dead Soldiers and Marines are streamed in even greater numbers than they are now back in the U.S.? The up-armoring cabal will be back on the pulpit, insisting that everyone ride in tanks or MRAPs. And predictably, many DT readers will yell at me when I point out how stupid that idea would be.
And, oh yeah, how many miles of hard-surface road are there in Afghanistan? Armored Humvees have a hard enough time weaving their way safely through the Wadis and rickety bridges. How do you think even the lightest MRAP would fare?
Well, at least Kelly and I agree -- and some others (Dakota Wood) -- that protection from IEDs doesn't come from hunkering down inside a bank vault on wheels, it's about mobility, intelligence and eyeballs. Thank goodness the Corps (and some Army units) pushed back on the MRAP hysteria, ending up on the right side of the argument after all.