Similarities exist between the Iraq and Afghan theaters of war: the enemy's weapons of choice in both countries include suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). But the river valleys of Iraq are very different terrain from the mountains and hills of Afghanistan. The equipment the U.S. used in the flatlands of Mesopotamia isn't likely to be as effective in the high crags of Central Asia. Indeed, apart from sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. is looking to redesign their equipment from the gear they carry to the vehicles they drive to the drones that spot trouble ahead as they pursue the mission Barack Obama has called the "right war." (See pictures of a mountainous outpost in Afghanistan.)
The plan is to issue soldiers lighter gear to help them navigate the mountainous terrain. Humvees will also have to be transformed. Those in use in Iraq have been much improved since the war began. However, they cannot be simply transfered over to Afghanistan. IEDs in Afghanistan have been delivering bigger bangs (in a seven-month period in 2008, IED incidents increased from 50 to 154) and, says, Dean Lockwood of the think tank Forecast International, "while the up-armored Humvees have good protection, it is not enough for a large IED." Furthermore, the vehicles have to be lighter to do all the off-road patrols required in Afghanistan. Indeed, some military officers would sacrifice armor for mobility in Afghanistan because that kind of versatility may increase the chances of averting a roadside bomb. (Check out a brief history of the Humvee.)
The Pentagon is working to speed up the purhase of 6,000 or more of such lighter, more mobile transport called MRAP-ATVs (the initial-loving military's monikker for "Mine Resistant Ambush Protection All Terrain Vehicles"). The vehicles "will have a smaller turn radius and be capable of keeping up with some of the pickup trucks [run by insurgents] they may be chasing," says Gen. Robert Lennox, the U.S. Army's assistant deputy chief of staff for operations. The specifics required by the Army and the Marines are spelled out in the request for bids: blas-resistant, off-road vehicles that drive 65 mph, have 16 inches of ground clearance, accelerate from zero to 30 mph in 12 seconds and weigh no more than 10 tons. Oh yes, the winning bidder also has to be able to produce 500 to 2,000 vehicles within a couple of months.
While drone warfare is controversial when it surreptitiously operates over Pakistani territory, there is no secrecy about its use to spot trouble ahead of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan itself. One system perfected in Iraq is headed for Central Asia. Task Force ODIN (short for Observe, Detect, Identify and Neutralize) is reputed to have killed 3,000 alleged bomb-planters and led to the capture of several hundred more.
Now ODIN II is headed to Afghanistan. The system is a combination of piloted aircraft and "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" (UAVs) equipped with sensors and infra-red cameras in order to help see insurgents planting bombs even at night. With the information relayed via ground stations, the operators of ODIN, working on Panasonic Toughbook laptops, compare incoming images with earlier ones rom the same site, looking for tiny differences that may indicate the work of bomb makers. When they spot an enemy crew in action, they can either alert nearby troops to be on the guard or call Apache helicopters to launch Hellfire missiles against suspected bombers.
In addition to ODIN, the Pentagon is spending millions of dollars more on other drones to track IEDs and their makers. The names are colorful: Yellow Jacket, Copperhead, the Sentinel Hawk. The Yellow Jacket project, which involves an almost self-contained robot aircraft, will cost nearly $10 million.
All of these technology upgrades are necessary, says Rickey Smith of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, because "the Taliban have evolved and the more robust they get, the more counterinsurgency and elements of national power are needed to kick into the effort." The urgency felt by the Pentagon is reflected by Gen. Richard Cody, formerly the Army's vice chief of staff, as he talked about fielding ODIN throughout Afghanistan: "We are building as many as we can as fast as we can."