By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- One of the more intriguing facts to surface in the Washington Post’s series on “The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs” is that “shortcomings in electronic warfare expertise had been evident among Army and Marine units” in Iraq.
Just think for a second: the most capable Army ever fielded, according to the Pentagon’s PR, deployed to Iraq without electronic warfare specialists. Sounds impossible?
Yet the Post’s description of how this shortage was finally recognized, but was remedied only two years later, is a frightening reminder of just how dangerous the Pentagon’s systemic inertia can be.
It also raises questions about how the US Army’s much-ballyhooed “transformation” to a futuristic, high-tech force could have resulted in the comprehensive disappearance of EW expertise -- at “division, brigade, regiment and battalion” level, as the newspaper recounts.
This is not a question of a few EW slots being left unfilled. Indeed, the lack of EW expertise was so serious that thousands of anti-IED jammers could not be used properly. "We had all these boxes over there and people didn't know how to use them," the Post quotes Rear Adm. Arch Macy, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, as saying. "They'd turn them on, thinking they were protected when they weren't."
Although troops were being killed by roadside bombs every day, it wasn’t until early 2006 that Washington was told that “the ground electronic warfare fight that's killing so many soldiers and Marines would be greatly aided by having people here who know electronic warfare," the Post reports. What a surprise!
At that point, “Task Force Troy, the counter-IED brigade in Iraq, calculated that nearly 300 electronic warfare officers would be required. The Navy agreed to provide them,” the Post says, but it wasn’t until April 15, 2006 that the first batch of 33 Navy electronic warfare experts arrived in Baghdad. Finally, the Post says, “soldiers and Marines had an expert to adjust those finicky boxes and antennas, and to offer advice on using jammers as a weapon against radio-controlled bombs.”
Whether or not bringing in US Navy EW technicians to operate the jammers was indeed the “stroke of genius” described by retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, head of the Pentagon's counter-IED effort, is debatable. It seems, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, just elementary common sense.
But what shows no common sense whatsoever is that the Army and Marine Corps had allowed their EW capabilities to degrade to the point that they couldn't find 300 EW technicians among the 150,000+ troops they had in Iraq at the time.
Rebuilding a lapsed military capability is a long, difficult and expensive process. Sweden was reminded of that one morning in October 1981, when it woke up to find a Soviet Whiskey-class beached 2 kilometers from its top-secret naval base at Karlskrona. The submarine had not been detected because the Swedish Navy had given up on anti-submarine warfare under financial pressure to cut costs. It took more than a decade, and countless millions of kroner, to restore those capabilities.
How the US Army and Marines ended up losing their battlefield EW capabilities at a time they were spending $500 billion a year to “transform” into “net-centric” forces is a mystery, and deserves investigation. Is this another of Donald Rumsfeld’s great ideas?
But the really scary question, however, is how many more similar surprises are still lurking out there?