A few weeks ago I was flying home next to a guy whose buzz cut screamed military, or at least ex. The flight was long so I asked him if I was right but I was wrong, he wasn't. However he was just coming back for a quick vacation from Iraq where he is a civilian contractor helping to build one of our new permanent air bases over there. He told me that things were even worse than what we see on the news, that two or three attacks on his future base's perimeter took place every week, yet they never made the news. He said that all the families of the Iraqis working with them are regularly intimidated by insurgents and several have been killed. Then I asked him if he ever went to the Green Zone for a little R&R and he just laughed. He said they only leave the base on their way to and from the airport. The roads are just too dangerous so everyone, civilian and military, just hunker down within the perimeter in virtual lockdown. He said the ride to the airport for this two-week vacation was the longest ride of his life.
That got me to thinking about these IEDs and how they must constantly weigh on the minds of everyone over there. Then I started doing some research. How many IEDs would you guess the Army uncovers in Iraq every day? Two? Ten? How about thirty. That's ten times as many as the British used to find in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. I wondered, besides up-armoring Humvees (finally), what else are we doing to protect our soldiers? It turns out that most all IEDs have some sort of remote detonator so we are sending in thousands of radio jammers so the garage-door opener the bomb is rigged to will no longer be able to receive a signal. And there's that huge armor-plated Buffalo truck with a long mechanical arm.
Then I kept seeing news pieces on this futuristic ray gun by a company called Ionatron. Their gizmo, called the JIN, is mounted on what looks like an armor-plated lawn mower and it's supposed to zap the IEDs with artificial lightning. Though they cost about a million bucks a pop I still thought that was pretty cool. Fox News, NBC and USA Today have all run with the story. Then I dug some more (God bless Google) and discovered that there's already the Talon robot that costs around $100,000. The army's said even that was too expensive since the Iraqi highways are so littered with IEDs that they'll need hundreds of whatever they chose to effectively patrol the thousands of miles of roads. Digging deeper still I discovered yet another new robotic system about to come on line that costs just $6700 a piece.
So why is the army buying 12 JINs for $12 million plus spending another $13 million for spare parts and training? And why does the company say on their website that the supplemental budget Congress passed in April will land them "in excess of $100 million for JIN production"? (That same money would buy around 14,925 of the cheaper robots.)
Perhaps the answer lies in who is behind Ionatron, a character named Robert Howard who was fined $42,000 by the SEC for improperly tipping off a friend and then three years later fined $2.7 million for allegedly "issuing false and misleading statements about its earnings projections," according to TheStreet.com.
Our tax dollars need to go to systems that truly help our service men and women and not to guys like Howard.
Besides, what cutting-edge, hi-tech countermeasure does the army itself say is the most-effective method for sniffing out roadside IEDs? A robotic artificial lightning zapper? 24/7 aerial recon? Nope.
What the army is most excited about today is a dog.