Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kandahar: Up close with the US army's anti-bomb robots

By Kevin Sites — Special to GlobalPost 

When the 20th Engineers leave the wire at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, just south of Kandahar, this is how they roll: in a thunderous, $3 million convoy of seven high tech vehicles so advanced they make the bomb hunting capabilities of the early days of the Iraq War seem like Civil War era technology.

The vehicles — which include the 23-ton Buffalo that has a hydraulic arm to push, prob, dig and air-blast dirt and debris from suspected roadside bomb sites, and a “Mad Max”-looking dune buggy called the Husky, which is equipped with ground penetrating radar — are so enormous and ectomorphic they would leave the participants at a monster truck rally feeling woefully underequipped.

The machines have never been more important as Taliban militants, emulating Iraq's insurgents, increasingly use roadside bombs, or IEDs in military parlance, to disrupt the U.S. Army's mobility around the the country.
Roadside bombs killed more American soldiers than any other weapon in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, where the use of IEDs was once rare — they are quickly becoming the weapon of choice by the Taliban in the south. June saw more American deaths than at any other time during the nine-year war in Afghanistan — now America's longest military engagement.

While the costs of these bomb-seeking machines are daunting, Lt. Col. Peter Andrysiak, commander of the 20th Engineer Battalion, said roadside bombs are the greatest threat to coalition and local forces in Afghanistan today.

“Although the cost of producing and maintaining route clearance vehicles can be great,” he said, “there is no questions that the lives and well-being of America’s sons and daughters are worth every cent.”

Andrysiak, a man the size of a small building and a former West Point football player, said his route clearance teams, while sometimes underappreciated, are central to the NATO mission of ensuring freedom of movement throughout Afghanistan.

But, more importantly, there is the goal of keeping both soldiers and civilians alive.

Gone are the days when U.S. soldiers and Marines left the wire in soft-skinned Humvees retrofitted with welded “hillbilly armor” and gunner turrets made of sandbags stacked on top of plywood roofs.

These vehicles represent a more cautious, purpose-built engineering. They have sharp V-shaped hulls that deflect bomb blasts to either side rather than absorbing them up the middle. It is a good idea for vehicles like the Husky, which is used to find bombs by driving over them. So good is the design that, according to Andrysiak, it has a 90 percent survival rate — with only one soldier ever killed while operating one.

On one recent day, 2nd Lt. Mark Gillespie, a laid back 24-year-old from Springs, Colo., led the 1st Platoon on another "route clearance" mission. While Gillespie has been the platoon's leader for just a month, his guys have been doing the job for six, with another six to go.

They are part of the same company that lost three of their men before even deploying to Afghanistan. Aaron Nemelka, Michael Pearson and Frederick Green were among the twelve people killed on Nov. 5, 2009, when Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hassan opened fire at the unit’s home base in Fort Hood, Texas.

The route clearance patrols reflect the old war adage: “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.”

The convoy drives at the sluggish pace of five to 10 miles per hour, scouring the ground through thick, blast-proof portals which are further protected by an outer layer of steel bars resembling gigantic shark cages, perhaps fitting for the hostile environment they immerse themselves in daily.

So stultifying are the effects of the slow and tedious drive, the soldiers must keep themselves alert with copious amounts of caffeine, which they get from the tiny cans "Rip It," an energy drink.

And while they find bombs daily, it’s a Sisyphean task since the Taliban often follows in their wake, replacing those that have been removed with new ones.

At a small village not far from the American base, Gillespie and a handful of his men dismounted to inspect the underside of a bridge before rolling over it. Traffic stopped and the locals watched nervously. Many of the Afghanis appeared stoic in the presence of these giant Star Wars-like creations with their inhabitants who, with all their layers of body armor, weaponry and hydration packs, don’t look so different from spacemen.

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