Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he will lead an intensive push for new ways to defuse the threat from homemade bombs, the crude ambush weapons that account for eight in 10 casualties in Afghanistan.
"The best solution isn't always the most elaborate," Gates told workers assembling rush orders of a new armored combat truck that, like many of the bombs themselves, is an improvisation.
With numerous offices and agencies working on ways to find and protect against booby-trap bombs, Gates said he wants a brainstorming review across the Defense Department that would last about six months. He will get a monthly report on the progress, Gates said.
The weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq, improvised bombs once were unheard of in Afghanistan. Deaths among U.S. and NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan have risen sharply as insurgents there learned to adapt the bombs to Afghan terrain, and as the military's technology sometimes failed to keep up.
In September 2009, the Pentagon counted 106 effective attacks that killed 37 coalition service members and wounded 285 more. Two years earlier there were 19 successful attacks.
Chasing a moving target
An entire Pentagon agency was created to combat improvised bombs during the Iraq war and found itself chasing a moving target. Each time the experts figured out ways to detect one kind of bomb, the insurgents seemed to find another way to manufacture, hide or detonate devices that are often little more than dynamite, wire and a cell phone.
In October, the Government Accountability Office said the office, formally known as the Joint IED Defeat Organization, is hampered by bureaucratic shortcomings that could lead to duplication of efforts or unneeded programs.
"The whole purpose of this, really, is to make sure we get the troops what they need to protect themselves, and also the tools to be more effective," in dismantling insurgent networks that plant bombs or detecting the bombs themselves, Gates told reporters traveling with him.
A holdover from the presidency of Republican George W. Bush, Gates saw the steady rise of deaths and injuries from roadside bombs in Iraq and found more money for a heavier patrol vehicle called the mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored truck, or MRAP.
The transport truck Gates saw in action Thursday is adapted from that heavier version. With far fewer roads and rougher terrain in Afghanistan, the bigger, heavier trucks offered protection at the cost of less mobility. They also tipped over.
The Afghanistan version is smaller, lighter at 25,000 pounds and more agile than its cousin, the MRAP. One of its key advantages, the Pentagon says, is that it can go off road like an all-terrain vehicle and avoid the places where bombs are most likely to be hidden.
Apalled at news leaks
The manufacturer, Oshkosh Corp., said Wednesday it has received a $438 million order for an additional 1,000 vehicles. That brings the total number of vehicles delivered or on order to 6,219. Oshkosh will be paid more than $3.2 billion.
The company says it has delivered more than 950 of the vehicles, which began shipping to Afghanistan in September. The company says about 65 have gone so far. Oshkosh promises to be able to deliver 1,000 vehicles a month by December.
Gates said more could be ordered if President Barack Obama approves additional troops for Afghanistan.
Gates also said he was appalled at news leaks about Obama's deliberations about what to do on the Afghanistan troops decision and about the investigation into last week's deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly carried out by an Army psychiatrist.
"Frankly if I found out with high confidence anybody who's leaking on the Department of Defense, who that was, that would probably be a career-ender," he told reporters traveling with him. "Everybody ought to shut up."