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People First … and Dogs, Too: A Case Study of Throwing Money and High Technology at a Military Problem

US Army Spc. Kory Wiels and his military working canine Cooper take a break after searching a house for weapons and homemade explosives in Arab Jabour, southern Baghdad, Iraq, during operations June 29, 2007. (Photo: Steven Depolo)

Part of the Series

By now, people who have been following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that improvised explosive devices (IED) have cost the most deaths and injuries in these two wars. These devices, many of them crude and homemade, have been causing death, tearing off our soldiers' limbs and causing the signature injury of these two wars – traumatic brain injury (TBI). As the casualties mounted up from IEDs in the first several years in each war, the Department of Defense (DoD) did what it does best: it threw money and high technology at the problem.

First, the DoD had a bunch of ad hoc efforts to detect IEDs sprinkled throughout the military bureaucracy, but consolidated the effort in 2006 to create Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) in the hopes of coordinating the efforts and quickly finding the “magic bullet” that could detect IEDs and save lives. According to recent news articles and a 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the usual DoD management problems and accountability have already occurred. The JIEDDO didn't have good checks and balances in its finances, so it didn't track its money well, and had little transparency on its transactions. It didn't have a good tracking system of the work it had funded – what worked and what didn't – it staffed up quickly with much more contractor personnel than DoD staff and now has five contractor personnel for every one DoD staff member (and even that number is not solid because GAO found more contractor personnel when they audited it).

These problems are bad, but typical, of DoD programs and especially high-pressure DoD programs. However, the consequences of failure and delay have a much bigger impact than the usual overruns and technical failures of large weapon systems that are made to show force, but not widely used. The JIEEDO failure to find an effective guard against IEDs is costing lives and limbs of our troops in real time, right now.

The amount spent to date varies among sources (probably because the tracking of the money is a problem), but it is estimated that the JIEEDO has spent between $17 billion to $19 billion to date. The amount could be higher because not all programs have been brought under the JIEEDO umbrella. Defense contractors, large and small, have swooped in to get in on this easy money and to look patriotic at the same time. Lockheed, the largest DoD contractor and the government contractor with the largest misconduct record, was awarded in 2010 an initial task order of over $40 million to supply the Navy with their Symphony radio jammer to stop IEDs. The contract is sole source and can grow to almost a billion dollars (you know if you say it can be that much that the Lockheed lobbyists and their friends in Congress will make sure that it is). This Symphony radio jammer disrupts the signal for remotely controlled IEDs. The problem is that most IEDs are not remotely controlled, but have metal plates or other automatic devices to trigger that IED without the enemy being there to detonate the device.

There are other devices being funded such as detectors from drones and aircraft ($138 million spent on one of these devices), sweeping the ground with vehicles looking for the metal plates and a weird device called the Joint IED Neutralizer. This device was created by a small company in Arizona with over a $30 million contract. The Neutralizer went on the front of the vehicle and shot lighting bolts ahead of it to try to detonate the IEDS. Even though scientists said it wouldn't work if there was damp ground or dust and after it failed miserably in the field, the JIEEDO and Congressional earmarks kept it alive against all reason.

The IED problem has become even more urgent as General Petreus and others have pushed for troops to get out of their vehicles and do more foot patrols to win over the local population. This causes more vulnerability to IEDs because they don't have the armored protection of the vehicle.

Even some of the most conservative members of Congress, such as Rep. Duncan Hunter of the House Armed Services Committee, are angry with the JIEEDO for its mismanagement and low success. He let his anger be known at a hearing on the JIEEDO in March 2010, saying that he believes that many of the programs have failed especially given how much money was spent.

This year, much to the chagrin of the JIEEDO and its high-tech camp followers, the agency had to admit that all their billions of dollars devoted to electronic efforts had only worked 50 percent of the time, and that the local insurgency was able to defeat their devices faster than they could come up with new ones. Only one “weapon system” worked 80 percent of the time: dogs.

The JIEEDO has found that well-trained dogs and well-trained troops could greatly outperform lighting bolts and other devices. This is especially true since the insurgents in Afghanistan have made their IEDs with very little metal to escape detection, making more of their bombs out of fertilizer, which is easily detected by dogs. The dogs and the troop training are costing much, much less: $8.7 million contract by the Marines for 250 trained dogs and their handlers.

But there isn't big money in training and dogs; there is big money and prestige in electronic devices, drones and lighting bolts. The insurgents have tried to overcome the dogs' noses with various rotting animals and food, but dogs, which can smell 40 times better than humans, are not easily fooled. (Amazingly, dogs have been trained with a high success rate to smell lung cancer in humans' breath way before any x-ray can detect it.)

The push for expensive solutions is so entrenched in the DoD bureaucracy that their research shop, DARPA, has been trying to electronically recreate a dog's nose since 1997, to no avail.

There is also a successful push for the troops to be trained to understand the local culture and customs to make them aware of threats and the placements of IEDs. That has contributed to pushing the non-dog IED detection rate up to 60 percent in Afghanistan. But even this has had its outrageous boondoggles – in a role-playing exercise, the JIEEDO spent $24.1 million to make steel shipping containers look like Iraqi buildings.

The high-tech and high-dollar culture in DoD is deep. For years, many of my sources have joked that you will never get a contract for a weapon or training program if it is “too cheap and too effective.” This is tragically true in this case where the simple and effective solution doesn't have a big constituency in the DoD or the Congress. Careers will not be made on training troops and dogs because it just isn't sexy enough or has enough dollars behind it.

The Solution?

There has been a group of cutting-edge reformers in the Pentagon for years that have been trying to get the war bureaucracy to put people first, ideas second and weapons third. Of course, the military industrial complex, including the top brass who claim to be warfighters, have resisted this and grabbed for every new shiny plane, tank or ship while robbing operation and maintenance budgets to cover the budget overruns of the weapons. The shorting of these budgets limits the time troops train on their weapons. The amount of money spent on ideas and training are miniscule compared to these giant, often outdated weapon systems even though a careful reading of the true military history of battles will show how important training and ideas are in truly winning wars.

Pierre Sprey, an aeronautical engineer who co-designed the F-16 fighter and the A-10 combat aircraft while in the DoD, worked with the late, legendary Col. John Boyd to judge what works in combat. They insisted that every weapon system should be considered with people first, ideas second and weapons third. Sprey has recently written a 15-page essay on weapons and this concept in an anthology called “The Pentagon Labyrinth.” Here are several of his rules that should have been followed by the JIEEDO on the deadly IED problem:

The world is awash in mediocre or even useless weapons. The good ones are few and far between. Telling the difference is of utmost consequence to the people who have to use the weapons and to the nation that has to pay for them.

If you are seriously trying to understand whether a given fighter, destroyer, tank, rifle or truck is worth acquiring, you will soon find yourself buried under a mountain of misinformation; the more expensive the weapon, the deeper you'll be buried. Here are a few guideposts for digging your way out:

RULE 1: Weapons are not the most important ingredient in winning wars. People come first; ideas are second and hardware is only third.

After 1973's crushing 80-to-1 victory by Israelis flying F-4s and Mirages against Arab pilots flying MiGs, the commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Gen. Mordecai Hod, famously remarked that the outcome would have been the same if both sides had swapped planes. He was exactly correct, simply because the IAF had the most rigorous system in the world for filtering out all but the most gifted pilots. In every war, it's the few superb pilots that win the air battle. A tiny handful of such pilots have dominated every air-to-air battleground since World War I: roughly 10 percent of all pilots (the “hawks”) score 60 percent to 80 percent of the dogfight kills; the other 90 percent of pilots (“doves”) are the fodder for the hawks of the opposing side. Technical performance differences between opposing fighter planes pale in comparison.

Submarine warfare is strikingly similar: the best 10 percent of the skippers account for the majority of the tonnage sunk. And, when the ace skippers switch boats, the high scores go with the skipper, not with the crew left behind.

Ground combat is much subtler and more complex than air or naval warfare thus, relative to hardware, people and ideas are even more dominant. In 1940, the Germans, outnumbered 1.5 to 1 in armor by French and British tanks, most of them technically superior, crushed France in just three weeks. The smaller German tank forces hardly mattered; they won because they had far better combat leaders, tactics and morale and because their troops were far better trained. Fifty years later, commenting on a similar disparity in people, General Schwarzkopf said the outcome of Gulf War I would have been the same if the U.S. and Iraqi armies had exchanged weapons thereby echoing General Hod.

People are so overwhelmingly important in war that … the single most important characteristic of a weapon is its effect on the user, that is, whether it helps or hurts the user's combat skills, adaptability and fearlessness …

RULE 7: When judging weapons effectiveness, seek out informed skeptics, both in and out of uniform. Weigh carefully their insights on weapons shortcomings. Ignore the corporate flacks, military procurement program managers, acquisition command flag officers, civilian high tech advocates and, above all, the “experts” and “experienced users” trotted out by the military services whenever their favorite programs are under attack.

No example demonstrates better the enormous value of an informed skeptic than the Patriot tactical ballistic missile defense system. During Gulf War I, 158 Patriots were fired at incoming Iraqi Scud ballistic missiles, an ancient and ineffective derivative of the World War II German V-2 rocket. Army press releases during the war claimed 100 percent of Scuds were shot down, reducing this to 96 percent in the first testimony to Congress, then 80 percent, 70 percent and a final figure of 52 percent, though with a caveat that only 25 percent could be supported with “high confidence.” The Army's slow backpedaling from their initial outrageous claims was entirely due to the meticulous analyses of combat videotapes by a single courageous, highly qualified skeptic, M.I.T. professor Theodore Postol. His final work demonstrated that, at best, only 2 to 4 of the 158 incoming Scuds had been destroyed by Patriots, even though more than 3 Patriots were fired at each Scud, on average. In truth, Postol showed there was no conclusive evidence that any Scuds had been destroyed by Patriots.

Even worse, when the Patriots were deployed to defend Tel Aviv halfway through the Iraqi Scud campaign, Postol's evidence showed they increased Israeli casualties per Scud by 74 percent and apartments damaged per Scud by 340 percent apparently mostly due to explosion debris from the large numbers of Patriots that missed.

Needless to say, the 0 percent to 5 percent combat success rate of Patriot batteries against the primitive Scuds is a poster child for the false claims and likely failures in combat of our $90 billion Ballistic Missile Defense System.


There can be no question that independent, reasoned, combat-based effectiveness assessments of our major weapons programs by people both inside and outside DoD are needed more than ever. Be under no illusions about the huge obstacles facing any such attempts – obstacles imposed by corporate hunger for profits, by encrusted military procurement bureaucracies pursuing their self-interest and by military users slavishly defending traditional doctrine. Tackling these powerful interests takes guts and tenacity. But if we don't take them on, the country will continue to pay more and more for shrinking forces that contribute less and less to our nation's security.

Sprey knows how hard it is to change this climate, but says that it is vital for our troops. His recipe for change is a big-slice solution. I try to tackle the big-problem solution with smaller slices. I think that the dog and training solution are reasonable solutions to the billions of dollars that have been wasted by the JIEEDO, and the Congress should continue to hold back or channel funding until the JIEEDO begins to lose its love of the big tech solution and learn more from the troops what works. The simple but effective dog solution is everything that the big money DoD bureaucracy loathes, but it is a good and important start on this problem, especially since it can immediately save more troops' lives.

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