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North County Times July 10, 2005

Electronic 'IED' jammers roll out to stymie bombers

By Darrin Mortenson

Hidden and often remotely detonated bombs have become the insurgents' deadly weapon of choice in Iraq, and continue to vex military leaders and terrorize American troops.

Military officials say such bombs ---- what they call "improvised explosive devices," or "IEDs" ---- have claimed the "vast majority" of the more than 1,750 service members who have been killed and more than 13,000 who've been wounded in Iraq.

But soon the troops may have a new way to fight back.

Pushing out IED jammers

Utilizing a new law that allows the military to bypass its lengthy procurement process, the U.S. Navy and a private electronics firm in Northern California have, in less than 60 days, produced a hand-held device said to jam the signal sent from improvised detonators such as garage-door openers and cell phones.

The first few hundred of these so-called "IED jammers" rolled off the assembly-line last week, the first example of what U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, called "a new spirit of patriotic production."

"IEDs are killing more Americans than any other warfighter apparatus in the two theaters" of Iraq and Afghanistan, said Hunter, who heads the powerful House Armed Services Committee.

"We face an enemy who adapts quickly," he said, before touring the Tyco Electronics plant Thursday where the first tested models of the "Warlock Blue" jammer were being boxed up and put on pallets for shipment. "We have to be that quick in getting what our men and women in uniform need on the battlefield."

Company officials told Hunter that it took them 33 days from the time the military first ordered the jammers to having the first pallets ready for shipment.

Hunter said the $10 million contract with Tyco was the first time the new purchasing authority has been used.

"Before, we would have walked out and put this thing on the three-year (procurement) train," Hunter said Wednesday after observing the production line at the facility, the location of which military officials asked to be kept a secret.

"Now we can get it like that," he said, clicking his fingers and bringing smiles to the room full of nodding company officials.

Warlock Blue

Insurgents have buried homemade bombs under Iraq's roads, hidden them in trash and tied them to poles and overpasses to kill American troops since the early summer of 2003, when military officials first started reporting the deadly problem in the aftermath of the invasion.

A simple click of a remote car-door opener or call from a cell phone is often all it takes to kill.

Just as a Humvee full of Marines or soldiers cruises cautiously down an Iraqi roadway, or as troops on a foot patrol guardedly walk through a trash-strewn street, a hidden bomb explodes, triggered by an unseen enemy.

Mostly crafted from leftover artillery shells and other munitions that U.S. forces failed to find or secure after the invasion, the improvised bombs have evolved in sophistication and deadliness, going from crude booby traps set off by timers and wires to more advanced and powerful weapons that are detonated from a distance with catastrophic results and minimal risk to the trigger man.

Military reports show that cell phones, garage-door openers and the "pods" used to control vehicle doors and alarm systems are among the insurgents' favorite triggers.

While U.S. forces have for at least a year used jammers to prevent the explosions and countermeasures to pre-detonate them, they were heavy, expensive devices mounted to vehicles and designed to protect whole convoys.

The new "Warlock Blue" model, officials say, is the first of its kind; a portable and reprogrammable device that can be carried by individual troops to protect a small unit or vehicle.

While they are secretive about how it works, and insisted that it not be physically described or photographed, officials involved in the project said the jammer is designed to counter the insurgency's latest triggering devices. So as not to tip off the enemy, military officials would not discuss how far the Warlock Blue jammer's protective umbrella would spread.

"What this is about is saving lives," said James Fallon, a Tyco engineer who worked on the project.

Emergency acquisitions

The jammers were part of a promise that Hunter and other members of the House Armed Services Committee made to U.S. troops in May, when they said they'd have the next generation of jammers sent to Iraq within 45 to 60 days.

As the first units rolled off the assembly line and were boxed and put on pallets for shipment Wednesday ---- day 33, officials were quick to point out ---- it appeared they were on the way to keeping their promise.

"It's unlike the up-armoring that took so long and had so many bureaucratic hang-ups," Fallon said, referring to the sad chronology of government and military bumbling that continues to leave American troops without enough body armor, armored Humvees and other equipment in Iraq.

"This was done quickly, efficiently and we've got pallets ready to ship," he said.

The key to the speed was the new provision in the 2005 defense spending bill that allowed for the secretary of defense to waive all previous acquisitions requirements on specific projects as long as the equipment is deemed "urgently needed to eliminate a combat capability deficiency that has resulted in combat fatalities."

The new law permits Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to "waive any provision of law, policy, directive, or regulation" regarding the testing, development, solicitation or actual awarding of the contract. The stated goal is to have a contract within 15 days and production started as soon as possible.

The Pentagon is limited to spending $100 million under the rapid acquisition legislation each fiscal year. The Tyco contract accounts for at least $10 million of that, officials said.

"The Rapid Acquisitions Authority allows the (Defense Department) to suspend some of the acquisitions rules in order to get something procured very rapidly," said Maj. Mark Phillips, the Army officer who served as the Pentagon's point man on the jammer project.

Tyco ramps up

Phillips said Tyco got the contract when it was determined that the company originally chosen to build the jammers in the 60-day window could not handle the job.

From the time it received the jammer design from Navy engineers, Tyco ramped up for production, yanking personnel off of other projects to assemble a team and redesign its production line and equipment.

They started buying parts even before they were awarded the contract, said Robert Tavares, vice president of Tyco's aerospace and defense sector, who said employees regarded their mobilization as a "call to arms."

Workers wear dog tags around the plant to remind them of the grim importance of their product.

"We understand the urgency with this," Tavares said, calling their mind-set a "1941 mentality."

"We understand the gravity of the situation in Iraq," he said.

Tavares said the company applied all the same tools it would apply to get electronic products to the fast-moving commercial market, placing emergency orders for hard-to-get parts from suppliers in Germany, France, Mexico and across the United States.

They enlisted the help of several manufactures in Central and Northern California, and contracted a firm in the same industrial park to build the circuit boards and do final assembly on the Warlock Blue.

"Normally something like this would probably take, say, six to nine months," said Maj. Phillips, the Pentagon official. "This is going to happen in two (months). I've been in the acquisitions business for seven yeas and I've never seen anything happen so fast."

Jammers bound for Marines, soldiers

Reaching the point in the assembly line where the finished jammers were boxed up for shipment, company officials asked Chairman Hunter to sign one of the kits Wednesday.

"Duncan Hunter, Armed Service Committee," Hunter scribbled on the box lid.

Hunter, a former Marine, signed off with the Marine motto, "Semper Fi."

"It's a production ethic," he said. "This is the ethic that allowed us to build Liberty Ships in World War II, and in San Diego build a bomber an hour. It's an ethic we've lost, unfortunately."

He urged the employees to get back to work, and promised to take their story to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to "let him know what he signed."

"Instead of putting it on the slow-boat-to-China ---- the massive bureaucracy, we'll-have-it-in 18-months, home of the $600 hammer ---- system, we have a license to waive all acquisitions laws if we're taking casualties on the battlefield," Hunter said.

"You're the model," Hunter told the people at Tyco on Wednesday. "Every second, every minute, every hour is important.

"The survivability of our men and women in uniform... is largely predicated on our ability to put these things out."

Analysts cautious of new rules

While agreeing that the bomb jammers are probably vital to the beleaguered troops in Iraq, defense analysts cautioned that the military's infamous procurement process became that way to save the taxpayer from costly lemons and to protect service members from being stuck with faulty weapons or equipment on the battlefield.

Marcus Corbin, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, said he is skeptical of such a blanket waiver for the military, just as he said he has been wary of incremental attacks on the system of checks and balances since the early 1990s.

"It's a good idea ---- to cut the red tape to get equipment to the troops in the field," Corbin said in a telephone interview Friday. "But any of these rollbacks can be abused."

Corbin said that some of the layers of bureaucracy that could now be skipped were established so that troops do not wind up with dangerous gear. He referred to the original model of the M-16 service rifle, which frequently jammed or misfired during combat in Vietnam.

"That's an appalling story about how the Army rammed that through," he said.

"I have deep reservations and view these kinds of exceptions to rules with deep caution," he said. "They seem to be part of a long-running program to gut oversight. They have been abused."

Hunter, it should be said, is a favorite of the defense industry.

According to Political Money Line, a database that tracks money in U.S. politics, 24 percent of the contributions Hunter has received from political action committees in his 12-term career as a U.S. representative have come from the defense industry.

Wartime standards

John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank specializing in military issues, said the risks of abuse are real but are justified by the war.

"We have to be very careful with it, but there is a war on," Pike said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"It's a question of balancing risks," Pike said.

"I'd prefer to deal with waste, fraud and abuse than with the risks they're facing on the battlefield," he said.

"There are peacetime standards and there are wartime standards," he said. "The peacetime procurement process, in some cases, just takes too long. We're fighting a war."

Hunter said the proof that the risks were worth taking will be when "we flood the theater" in Iraq with the jammers and other equipment that will allow American troops to adapt as fast as the insurgency can.

As he wrapped up his tour of the production line Wednesday, Hunter praised the Tyco team for their spirit and commitment to the troops.

"Personal accountability is taking the place of reams of paper work," he said of the expeditious production process. "That's what's happening on the battlefield. That's what needs to happen at home."

Copyright 2005, North County Times