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IEDs won't die after Afghanistan, top general says

Dec. 13, 2013 - 12:35PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's multibillion dollar effort to combat makeshift bombs will continue even after the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ends next year.

The bureaucracy that sprung up at the height of fighting in Iraq will be needed for "the inevitable next fight," said Army Lt. Gen. John Johnson, who leads the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. Johnson took command of the effort this fall and talked about its future in an interview with USA TODAY.

IEDs have been the insurgents' weapon of choice against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bombs have killed more than 3,100 U.S. troops and wounded 33,000 more.

In response, JIEDDO has spent nearly $25 billion to buy equipment to protect troops, train them and target bomb-making networks since 2006.

American enemies in the "next fight" will use IEDs, Johnson said, because they're effective.

"They've caused us a lot of pain," said Johnson, who commanded troops in Iraq. "It costs us a lot of effort, and a lot of treasure, to counteract the effects of those weapons systems, protect our forces."

JIEDDO lists improved training, attacking bomb-making networks and fielding robots, spy balloons and blast-proof underwear among its successes. Initiatives that didn't pan out cost taxpayers $800 million.

The organization will reduce its staff to about 1,000, down from 3,000 a few years ago, as the fighting in Afghanistan winds down, Johnson said. It will also become less reliant on contractors. At one point, government employees were outnumbered about 4 to 1 by contractors. That ratio will soon be 1 to 1, he said.

Makeshift bombs have flourished away from war zones. From September 2012 to Oct. 1, 2013, there were more than 15,000 makeshift bomb explosions outside Afghanistan, according to JIEDDO. U.S troops, diplomats and civilians will face some risk from them while abroad, Johnson said.

JIEDDO, or an agency like it, will be required to retain expertise in defending against the makeshift bombs, said Francois Boo, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy organization.

"If anything, the IED threat is going to become more prevalent," he said.

IEDs are cheap to make, easy to build and effective, he said. Defusing them is costly and dangerous. Bomb-making expertise has spread from Iraq and Afghanistan to insurgent groups to Syria and other hot spots like Syria and parts of Africa, Boo said.

JIEDDO has "knowledge that you don't want to lose," he said.

Makeshift bombs would probably be used by adversaries with a traditional military, like North Korea, Johnson said.

"Even in what we'd consider a conventional environment we would anticipate a significant guerrilla effort," he said. "Our enemies are not stupid. They have observed us and studied us very closely. Even in a situation like (Korea) they'd anticipate the pain and disruption that IEDs can cause. We expect to see it even in a situation like that."

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