Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Let’s not bet on sensors over dogs just yet

By Rebecca Frankel, Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent The Washington Times ran an article yesterday that caught my attention. The story’s subhead, "Fewer canines on battlefield," made me raise a skeptical brow, but its opening line, "In Afghanistan, a soldier’s best friend is no longer a bomb-sniffing dog, but an electronic sensor" had me scoffing ...

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

By Rebecca Frankel, Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

The Washington Times ran an article yesterday that caught my attention. The story's subhead, "Fewer canines on battlefield," made me raise a skeptical brow, but its opening line, "In Afghanistan, a soldier's best friend is no longer a bomb-sniffing dog, but an electronic sensor" had me scoffing out loud.

The news of the piece is focused around the comments of Rod Korba, identified in the article as a spokesman for JIEDDO; comments that the reporter says represent a supposed "shift" in the organization's strategy. I assume Korba's statement is recent though no date or forum is mentioned. Though some readers might understandably assume this article is commenting on the MWD program at large, Korba is talking about JIEDDO's investments, saying that JIEDDO-engineered hand-held sensors are outperforming the JIEDDO-funded IED detection dogs (different than MWDs). "What it comes down to," says Korba, "is we have other resources that we have had greater statistical success, handheld sensors and things like that."

By Rebecca Frankel, Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

The Washington Times ran an article yesterday that caught my attention. The story’s subhead, "Fewer canines on battlefield," made me raise a skeptical brow, but its opening line, "In Afghanistan, a soldier’s best friend is no longer a bomb-sniffing dog, but an electronic sensor" had me scoffing out loud.

The news of the piece is focused around the comments of Rod Korba, identified in the article as a spokesman for JIEDDO; comments that the reporter says represent a supposed "shift" in the organization’s strategy. I assume Korba’s statement is recent though no date or forum is mentioned. Though some readers might understandably assume this article is commenting on the MWD program at large, Korba is talking about JIEDDO’s investments, saying that JIEDDO-engineered hand-held sensors are outperforming the JIEDDO-funded IED detection dogs (different than MWDs). "What it comes down to," says Korba, "is we have other resources that we have had greater statistical success, handheld sensors and things like that."

Unfortunately, that "statistical success" is not shared in the Washington Times‘ report nor is it validated by any reports of on-the-ground experience. Korba might only be speaking of JIEDDO-funded dogs, but the lack of clarity here undermines the work of the entire community. None of the program managers, or handlers I’ve spoken to who have worked — or are still working — dogs downrange, say these sensors outperform MWD teams. Furthermore, those that have seen the sensors in action have told me they’ve observed battery failure, false readings, and say that to be utilized to full effectiveness these technologies require very controlled situations. (There’s also a failure here to address some basic points. For example: Korba references the hand-held sensor which implies the person holding it has to be close to the source of explosives to make a reliable find, while a dog can be worked off leash alerting to odor at a reliable distance from source, but more importantly a safe distance from its handler.)

Furthermore, I didn’t find Korba’s comments about canines to ring with much truth — especially his asinine critique that dogs’ effectiveness is diminished because troops "end up befriending these animals" — and their presentation in this instance borders on irresponsible. Korba is quoted early on in the piece saying, "We are sort of de-emphasizing [dogs] because we find that other technologies are far more effective"

Sort of? Well, we are sort of still sending our dog teams out on missions. After spending this last week talking with those in the MWD community struggling with the loss of fellow handlers (as well as canines) who were recently KIA in Afghanistan, this is particularly infuriating.

To be sure, there is no perfect dog or infallible dog team. Dogs get tired, overheated, or they may lose their nerve. Handlers also get worn down; some might even get lazy and neglect reinforcing obedience training (a far greater offense than showing affection to their canine partner). And combat zones are unpredictable and terrible places — the reality is there is simply no way to avoid every roadside bomb.

Now that the U.S. military is struggling with budget cuts that are likely to deepen with a troop drawdown, we need to make sure that the troops still fighting have the best support funding allows. The real danger with an article like this is not only that it is intellectually or journalistically weak, but that one day soon our troops might be conducting combat operations with electronic sensors in their hands when what they really need is a dog by their side.

Above, U.S. Army Sergeant Nathan Arriaga walks with Zzarr, a 6-year old Dutch Shepherd at FOB Walton, on patrol mission with 1st Battalion 67th Armoured Regiment, Task Force Dealers in the Arghandab district on July 25, 2011.

 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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