COUNTERING IEDs: PART TWO
I'm on Iraq's main north-south highway, sitting in my undershirt and armor with two Navy bomb-disposal technicians in a million dollar 26-ton armored truck.
I am having one of the signature experiences of this war.
It's late January, about 3:00 on a cloudy, humid, windless afternoon. We're on the edge of the city of Tikrit. A couple donkeys stand in the muddy median nearby. Half a dozen similarly priced and armored U.S. Army vehicles are scattered around us, pulling security and blocking traffic. A military supply convoy stretches behind us, followed by a motionless queue of cars and trucks kilometers long, with some very irritated Iraqis inside them.
In front of us, 125 meters away, there is only one thing: an improvised explosive device.
We're going to blow it up.
”Hey, this is your day,” says the Navy tech who's driving the truck and leading our little three-man crew. He grins at me behind dark aviator glasses and a thick mop of wavy black hair. ”How many reporters get to go back to New York and say, ’I blew up an IED?' ”
Humming a Suzanne Vega tune, the other Navy man, in the back of the truck, peers at the IED through the optics of a remotely controlled robot called a Talon, which costs almost exactly as much as an Aston Martin DB9 roadster. He's prodding the object with the Talon's manipulator arm.
The IED, which cost its builder less than the price of a couple of Aston Martin wheel rims, looks like a big burlap bag with two oversize sandbags inside. Working the joysticks of his briefcase-size remote, the tech grabs one of the bags with the Talon's arm. ”I can't pull 'em or push 'em,” he reports. ”They're heavy.”
In fact, they might actually be sandbags. This thing might be a fake IED, put here to distract us from a real one nearby. Or it might have been placed here just to let hidden insurgents watch and learn from how we deal with it.
Then again, the bags might be filled with explosives. Supporting that possibility are a few other objects in the burlap bag coming into view on the briefcase monitor in the truck, courtesy of the Talon's video camera. These objects could be an artillery round or two, and maybe some control electronics. A pair of shiny, shellacked copper wires leads away from the bag in the general direction of a small, single-story concrete building about a kilometer away.
Enough already. There's one surefire way to find out if the IED is real: detonate a charge on it. The robot operator summons the Talon back to the truck, and the driver hands it some blocks of C-4 explosive attached to a reel of shock tube. He hands me the reel. The robot whirs back to the IED, spinning the reel in my lap. The robot drops the C-4 between the two bags.
The driver hands me the igniter. I grip it tightly in my left hand while inserting my right middle finger into the ring at the end of its firing pin.
”Stand by for fire in the hole in 15 seconds,” the driver says over the truck's public-address system. ”Fire in the hole in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…”
Explosive ordnance disposal has come a long way since the London Blitz. Over eight months in 1940 and '41, hundreds of thousands of bombs rained down on British cities, killing an estimated 43 000 people and leaving 1.4 million homeless. Roughly 10 percent of the bombs did not explode, and the job of defusing them fell mostly to army but also to a few navy units. Assigned to one of these was an American named Draper L. Kauffman.