Anti-IED contract moves McChrystal's vision forward

The U.S. military's battle against improvised explosive devices requires strategic communication, planning and more training to succeed.

The last weeks of the federal fiscal year saw awards for billion of dollars from the likes of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Defense and Health and Human Services departments.

But the award that might have the greatest long-term effect spoke to the transformation of how the DOD wages war in general and most immediately in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

A $494 million contract in September for DOD’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization could be a key effort in battling IEDs. Under the contract, five companies will compete for task orders to help JIEDDO in combating IEDs. Those five are CACI International Inc., GS5 LLC, ITT Corp., Lanmark Technology Inc. and Science Applications International Corp. 

Afghan insurgents are winning the communications battle, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in his Sept. 21 "Commander's Initial Assessment" report. Insurgents use information operations to shape the cultural and religious narrative and “use the psychological effects of IEDs” against the United States and its allies, said McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“Creating a perception of security is imperative,” he said

The JIEDDO award starts to address that issue. It is not so much a new effort as the newest in a years long campaign to defeat IEDs. For two of the winners, SAIC and Wexford Group International Inc., a CACI subsidiary, the award is one in a string of contracts for such work, going back to 2003.

Last year, Wexford scored a $453 million JIEDDO award to provide strategic planning, operational and training support, intelligence analysis, program management support and strategic communications. SAIC in September won a $120 million award to help the Marine Corps with technology designed to defeat radio-controlled IEDs.

While JIEDDO’s IED goal — find an effective response to neutralize IEDs — has remained constant, the finish line has been drawn in water.

When insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan used low-power radio-controlled detonators, DOD sent troops low-power jammers to prevent them from working. Then, insurgents switched to high-power detonators, and U.S. troops got high-power jammers.

But with each new threat response, the threat mutated. With the proliferation of successful jammers, insurgents switched to devices detonated by infrared signals.

The new challenge for contractors working on anti-IED efforts is to get out of what has been a defensive posture and move the U.S. response “left of boom,” to the networks of bomb builders.

“It’s not enough to be able to deal with the current threat, with bombs in Afghanistan, for example,” said Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer of McLean, Va.-based FedSources Inc. “If we deploy into Pakistan, that’s going to involve a whole different approach, different threats and different ways of responding to them.”

The contract goes beyond anti-IED efforts to supporting JIEDDO with strategic planning, operational and training support, intelligence analysis, program management support and strategic communications — the kinds of services that enable transformation from traditional symmetric forms of warfare to the asymmetric warfare of the 21st century.

The antithesis is much easier to pin down, Bjorklund said. “Go back to the time of Wellington and the troops in their bright-colored uniforms; there’d be an agreement made as to when the two sides were going to stand up and start shooting at each other — that’s symmetric warfare.”

But “DOD recognizes that the world is changing, the threats are changing, the requirements are changing and we must be able to respond to an asymmetrical threat,” he said.

Were there any doubt that success in war demands fundamental changes in thinking, McChrystal’s 66-page assessment would dispel them.

“Success is achievable,” but not through “our conventional warfare culture,” he said. “This is a different kind of fight. Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.”

The new approach recommended by McChrystal does not contradict: “The counter-IED information operations efforts must be fully integrated into the overall strategic communications strategy and structures,” he said. But the goal should be less winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people and more giving them “trust and confidence.” One way to do that, he said, is through “use of traditional communications to disseminate messages must be better exploited using both technology and more orthodox methods such as word of mouth.”

That is the essence of strategic communications, Bjorklund said. “It’s essentially public relations for national security purposes.”

But for all his thoughtfulness, McChrystal remains an Army general. “The information domain is a battlespace, and it is one in which [the United States and its allies] must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception.”

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