PSL equipment defeats improvised explosive devices in Iraq
by Karl Hill
Marine Cpl. Jake McCloskey credits a signal-jamming device known as ICE (for IED Countermeasure Equipment) with saving his life in Iraq.
“I’m here because of it,” he says now, back in the U.S. and on reserve status after two tours and a Purple Heart in Iraq.
On patrol in Ramadi in late 2004, he found himself standing directly over an IED – improvised explosive device. Hidden somewhere in the vicinity, he figures, a guerrilla fighter was trying desperately to detonate the bomb remotely and wondering why it wasn’t working.
The answer was in McCloskey’s nearby Humvee. A countermeasure device about the size of a small microwave oven had jammed the electronic signal that would have set off the bomb. As McCloskey and others in his unit later drove away from the scene, he recalls, “I felt the push of the blast from the IED,” but it was too far away then to cause damage.
ICE was developed by New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory in collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to protect American military personnel from IEDs. These makeshift bombs are often placed along roadways and triggered remotely using garage door openers, cell phones or other electronic signals.
The PSL-ARL collaborators developed the first ICE units in the fall of 2004, motivated to get the equipment to the troops as soon as possible. IEDs are responsible for about half of all U.S. casualties in Iraq, according to some estimates.
“We did the concept, procurement, build-up and testing in three weeks,” said Debra Bustamante, one of the lead PSL designers on the project.
Added Marc Howell, another designer: “It was very fast-paced. We knew that every day guys were getting hit. To actually get the equipment to work in field testing – that was a good feeling.”
The result of their efforts proved so valuable that the ICE system was recognized as one of the U.S. Army’s “Top Ten Greatest Inventions of 2004.” Sharing the award on behalf of the development team were Sam Mares, PSL’s lead engineer on the ICE project; Shane Cunico, the U.S. government lead engineer at White Sands Missile Range; and then-Maj. R.D. Pickering, now a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pentagon, who headed the team during its development. All three are NMSU graduates, notes PSL Program Manager Joanne Esparza.
Today there are thousands of ICE units in the field.
“Most people said that this could not be done in the time required, but don’t tell that to a motivated team of Aggie engineers,” Mares said. “We were working with young soldiers who just came back from Iraq and they kept us very motivated. … This was done with a very experienced engineering team working along side government and military advisers.”
McCloskey, who sometimes wished he could have a chance to thank the people who invented ICE, is now a member of the PSL team, training to be a field service representative. He will join other FSRs in Iraq to help military personnel with advanced countermeasures and troubleshooting.
“I’m doing something equally important now to what I did in the military,” he says. “I’m directly supporting my brothers in arms.”
Oscar Perez, who was an assistant professor at Dona Ana Community College before leaving academia to join the ICE project, helps to train the field service reps. “Word has spread that some of the best FSRs are from PSL,” he says. “Some are ex-military and some are recent graduates and they all are very high-caliber people.”
Melissa Adams, referred to by one field service representative as “our guardian angel during our deployment,” supports recruiting and overseas operations, prepares the FSRs for their deployments, and supports their families while they are overseas.
Ruben Carbajal Sr., who leads the entire ICE depot support task, works on system upgrades, troubleshooting and repairs.
The system is so reliable, few of them come back for repairs, Mares says. “We have less than 1 percent failures in the field.”
In describing its “Greatest Inventions of 2004,” the Army said ICE “provides new and improved capability in terms of effective ranges, power levels and ease of use. ICE’s unique design allows the warfighter to easily program operational threat parameters specific to the area of operation, resulting in increased survivability. ICE requires minimal user installation and maintenance training and imposes minimal logistical burden, allowing expanded utility for special operations.”
PSL built the first 100 ICE units and developed the models for the high-rate manufacturers. Most units are now manufactured by Canberra Aquila and Delta Group Electronics of Albuquerque and Raytheon Technical Services Co. of Indianapolis.
Not all ambush attacks on U.S. troops involve remotely detonated IEDs – some involve hard-wired IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades or other weapons – but eliminating insurgents’ ability to trigger bombs from a distance is a huge advantage, McCloskey says.
“Once ICE and other countermeasure devices got there (in Iraq), it took a lot of pressure off us,” he recalls. “It gives you confidence and improves your ability to do your job. If every vehicle could have one, you would be saving lives exponentially.”
For more information about the Physical Science Laboratory and its capabilities, visit http://www.psl.nmsu.edu.