Pentagon: dogs better than technology at bomb detection

Published 26 October 2010

After six years and nearly $19 billion in spending, a Pentagon task force assigned to create better ways to detect bombs has reached this conclusion: The best bomb detector is a dog.

Spencer Ackerman writes that the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO has been working on this problem for years, but it is only getting more serious. There have been more roadside bombs in Afghanistan in the first eight months of this year than in the same period in 2009, so the work JIEDDO is doing is under extra scrutiny.

Dan Nosowitz writes that this made it even more embarrassing when the director of the organization told a conference the other day that “Dogs are the best detectors.” As it turns out, the most sophisticated detectors JIEDDO could come up with tend to locate only 50 percent of IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. When soldiers are accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs, this number goes up to 80 percent. That director, Lieutenant General Michael Oates, said that his organization now focuses on disrupting the use of IEDs, rather than flat-out detecting them, because they have not made all that much progress on the detection front.

Instead of detection, JIEDDO now spends money on drones to find those planting IEDs, radio jammers to disrupt the frequencies used to detonate the bombs, and lots of aerial sensors to scan bomb-heavy areas. All this is useful, but Congress has recently shown a lack of confidence in the group’s accomplishments, its focus, and in the way its funds are being spent. In response, the House Armed Services Committee cut the group’s budget by nearly half a billion dollars (“Senate panel rejects Pentagon counter-IED group $400 million emergency funding request,” 27 May 2010 HSNW) — which, as Nosowitz points out, can train a whole lot of bomb-sniffing dogs, or at least buy some sweet dog armor.