IN THE BLOOD
SAILORS LEARN THAT FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND
THE ELECTRONIC ENVIRONMENT ‘CAN COST YOU YOUR LIFE’
BAGHDAD — During his first
visit to Iraq, in December 2005,
Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval
operations, sat down with several
Navy officers who were assigned to
a task force here that was working
on a host of ways to counter
improvised explosive devices
(IEDs), the No. 1 killer of U.S.
service personnel in Iraq.
The task force had gotten a lot
of money thrown at it fast.
“That’s always a worry,” Mullen
said, recalling his experience from
the trip. “I’m enough of a money
guy to know if you throw a lot of
money at something, everybody …
will show up saying, ‘Well I’ve got
something.’ And it wasn’t organized as well as it should be.”
He then met with three Navy officers specially tasked to try to solve
the challenge of remotely detonated
IEDs. One was a reservist who, in
Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval
operations, proposed the idea of
sending Navy electronic warfare
experts to Iraq to help Army troops
civilian life, played a key role in
developing the OnStar protection
program for General Motors. Powered by a vehicle’s battery, OnStar
helps drivers link to emergency service providers using wireless telephone and satellite technologies.
“Well these guys started walking
through what we’re doing and
that’s when the light bulb went
on,” Mullen recalled.
It was time for the Navy, with its
expertise in electronic warfare, to
begin playing a larger role in the
“We grow up in the Navy learning about a very challenging electronic environment that is out here.
You have nothing but radios, communication gear, electronic gear.
And there [is] an expertise,” Mullen
said. “For everybody who goes to
sea in the Navy, it gets into your
blood pretty fast because it can cost
you your life not understanding the
electronic environment. You win or
lose based on whether you give
your signature up.”
While Navy officers are immersed in that environment, said
Mullen, “the Army and Air Force
basically gave this capability up in
1990, on the downside of the fall of
the Soviet Union.”
Mullen sent an e-mail to Army
Gen. George Casey, then-commander
of coalition forces in Iraq and said
“I’ve got this ability and, the best I
can tell, you’ve got this gap.”
Casey liked the idea. So did Army
Gen. John Abizaid, then-commander
of U.S. Central Command, who formally requested Navy support.
“That was January, and by May
we pushed some 300 or so” Navy
personnel into Iraq. They stood up
as Joint CREW (Counter Radio-controlled IED Electronic Warfare)
Composite Squadron-One under the
command of Capt. Brian Hinkley.
He set up an ombudsman and support network, too, Mullen said.
“There is no ground officer
around here who won’t tell you that
they’ve saved a lot of lives. [It’s been]
pretty extraordinary,” Mullen said.
He credited the “inherent skills
that we have in managing the electronic environment that allows us
to not interfere with each other, to
understand what the threat is, to
be able to counter it.”
Mullen conceded that, despite the
Navy’s contribution since last May,
IEDs in Iraq continue to take lives
and remain a difficult challenge.
In describing the fluid tactics of
bomb-makers among Iraqi insurgents, a British explosives expert
told Mullen at the task force meeting, “these guys are changing tactics on the back of a napkin over a
cup of coffee.”
By contrast, coalition forces were
“taking our equipment and mailing
it back to Indiana, and two months
later it’s changed,” the expert said.
The lesson, Mullen said, is “we’ve
got to be quicker and more agile.”
The Joint CREW Composite
Squadron is an example of that
kind of adaptability, he suggested.
“There’s been a huge force
change, which is the kind of change
you want,” Mullen said. “Has it
solved the whole thing? No. But it
has given us a tremendous leg up in
the electronic world that we just
didn’t have a year ago.” ■