Center for Strategic Communication

An IED attack in Iraq 2004 Photo: Aaron Keene/Flickr

Finding a roadside bomb was never easy, even back when insurgents made their improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from old artillery shells and other metal parts. But now that militant bomb-makers favor wood and fertilizer as the main components for their IEDs, detection has become a complete nightmare.

That’s why the U.S. Marine Corps wants to build an entirely new kind of bomb detector, one that doesn’t rely on spotting the metal in the IED.

As far as improvised bombs go, the U.S. military is ensnared in a counterinsurgency game of constant one-upmanship. Just as the military finds a way to better detect an improvised bomb, the enemy finds a way to outsmart them and keep the bomb hidden until it’s too late.

For a while the insurgent’s bomb of choice used to be radio detonated, so the military used expensive jammers to block the radio signal and prevent the explosion. But insurgents soon moved on to bombs that responded to pressure, be it a foot or a tank, rather than radio waves – cue metal detectors. Check mate, insurgents. Well, until they decided to build metal-free bombs from wood and fertilizer.

In a recent call for design proposals, the Navy hopes that the new mine detectors will “be the material solution to the capability gap that exists in the detection of explosive devices” by locating both bombs made of metal and wood and fertilizer.

The Marines want the “low metallic signature mine detector” to be “a light-weight, man-portable, handheld detection system that is capable of detecting traditional, low metallic and non-metallic mines and explosive devices.”

They also want the detector to expose IEDs whether they’re buried in sand, clay or river rock – and it should be able to function at temperatures between -25 and +120 degrees Fahrenheit with a continuous performance time of 16.5 hours “without degradation of system performance.”

The handheld detector will weigh in at less that 9 pounds, about the same as a small bowling ball and it will need to have an “instant-on button” with a “start-up time of less that 90 seconds.”

The new detector should be able to identify improvised non-metallic devices, such as the wood-fertilizer bomb, at a minimum detection probability of 85 percent and a maximum false alarm rate of ten percent. In other words, it doesn’t have to be perfect — just an improvement over today’s maddening status quo.