On Dec. 4, Spc. Andrew Brown and the bomb-sniffing dog Rocky of the 226th Military Police Detachment searched a compound in Helmand province, Afghanistan. An explosive device detonated, spraying out deadly shrapnel.
Brown and Rocky—who had worked together for two years and deployed in October—sustained injuries, luckily not life-threatening.
The Army medevaced the pair for treatment in Germany. On Dec. 11, twenty-two-year-old Brown arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for further treatment while Rocky remained in Germany for surgery, awaiting transport to rejoin Brown stateside.
A photograph of a Purple Heart placed on Rocky’s muzzle briefly went viral. Despite media reports that Rocky received a Purple Heart of his own, the military does not officially confer medals upon its working dogs.
“The Purple Heart in the picture was placed on Rocky’s collar as a sign of respect and solidarity,” a representative of the 89th Military Police Battalion told War Is Boring .
But Rocky’s story is more than just a heartwarming tale. He is the product of a decade-old U.S. military program to train and deploy canine teams capable of discovering improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Often sophisticated, these homemade bombs were the major source of coalition causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attacks began soon after the invasion of Iraq. Forty to sixty percent of insurgent attacks began with the detonation of an IED , some continuing into a gun battle often involving secondary devices. Between 2004 and 2009 , IEDs claimed 2,750 coalition soldiers’ lives, and wounded more than 20,600 more.
During this period, the Pentagon scrambled to support its dismounted patrols with bomb-detecting dogs. Up to 1,200 military working dogs put their lives on the line to protect U.S. forces overseas during the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.
But as the main U.S. missions wrapped up in Iraq and Afghanistan—and public support moved away from “boots on the ground” wars—there is a danger that a lack of funding and interest from the military brass will put an end to the critical programs that put paws on the ground.
It happened before.
Before the last decade’s wars, the last time American dogs served in combat were as scouts in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon canned the extremely effective scout dog program after 1975, and the role of military working dogs shrank back to traditional base security roles such as guarding, patrolling and explosives detection. The skills and techniques learned in the jungle wasted away.
Will the lessons of the Middle East go the same way?
Sniffing for IEDs
The 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, is responsible for training most of America’s military working dogs.
The Air Force started training its own bomb-detecting dogs in 1971. Prior to the counter-IED mandate, almost all were Patrol Explosives Detector Dogs, or PEDDs. These bite-trained canines could not only sniff out explosives in vehicles, but even hunt down intruders on a base.
There are single-use Explosive Detector Dogs (EDDs) and Mine Detector Dogs (MEDDs) too — which do not receive training in bite techniques. This allows for a broader range of less formidable breeds than the German Shepherds and Belgian Malinoises that make up the dual-use roles.
The Air Force prefers dual-use dogs, because should a dog lose its ability to sniff explosives, it can still conduct patrols. When single-use dogs can no longer meet the high standards required for detection, they must retire.
Dual-use PEDDs were the first dogs to go out on patrol with combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Rebecca Frankel’s excellent War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love , the U.S. Marine Corps was the first branch of the military to throw Lackland’s canines at the IED problem.
In 2004, under orders from Gen. James Mattis, the Marine Corps sent six detector teams and about twenty-five dogs to Iraq. Although these dogs had training, they had no real experience in hunting for the IEDs lying buried in Iraq’s dusty roadsides, culverts and potholes.
Masked with dirt and rubble, left for days or weeks, these IEDs could be detonated by a cell phone call from a distant observer or by pressure plates waiting for a misplaced footstep.
PEDDs typically operate on-leash, which brought their handlers into the IED’s lethal blast radius of around 50 yards. The military needed a greater off-leash capability to better protect troops, so they turned to Britain and Israel for help.
The Israeli Defense Forces and British Army have extensive experience with dogs in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. In fact, the term IED originated within the British Army to describe the cheap but technically sophisticated fertilizer-boosted Semtex devices planted by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s.
The U.S. military’s off-leash Specialized Search Dogs (SSDs) entered service in 2002 after the U.S. Army Engineer Regiment at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, sent six of its engineers to train at the British Defense Animal Center. The British Army’s Arms and Explosives Search Dogs have an excellent reputation earned during their decades of service in Northern Ireland.
In 2004, the engineers took their dogs to Iraq. Their performance generated further interest in the program, and twenty-one new SSD teams trained at Fort Leonard Wood in 2005.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps worked with the Israelis, experimenting in controlling their off-leash dogs through radio connections. The two off-leash programs merged into the SSD training program and relocated to the joint training center at Lackland after 2005. The center even brought in former British Defense Animal Center instructor Paul Bunker to help teach the course.
SSDs are single-purpose dogs. During a ninety-three-day program at Lackland and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona , SSDs learn how to conduct searches while their handlers observe from around 200 yards away. This takes the handler out of harm’s way, and allows the dog to operate more quickly—up to ten times as quickly, according to Bunker .
EDDs, PEDDs and SSDs must all pass the military’s explosive detection dog test with 95 percent detection rate, with fewer than 10 percent false positives. They maintain this proficiency with at least four hours of explosive detection training each week. The dogs can find mortar shells, plastic explosives and detonation cords among the detritus common to Middle Eastern urban battlefields.
“The capability they [military working dogs] bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine,” ex-CIA chief David Petraeus was quoted in The Commander’s Guide to Military Working Dogs . “By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory. Our Army would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource.”
But despite consistently outperforming every technological solution designed to replace them, the Pentagon invested billions of dollars to augment the dogs’ work and, if possible, replace them.
Dog versus machine
Between 2004 and 2010, the Pentagon poured $17 billion into the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a.k.a. JIEDDO. The idea behind the agency was to develop sophisticated — and highly secretive — electronic systems and training programs to detect and disable IEDs.
That amount of money could have funded a whole army of dogs, but the military’s mutts were simply the sharp end of the counter-IED spear. Dogs require training, which costs a lot of money—around $10,000 a head—and they need frequent rest. On the other hand, a machine can operate around the clock with no distractions.