Memorial Day – Why does the Military Use Signal Jamming?

Since it is Memorial Day it’s necessary to pause and reflect on those that have served and the plight of our current soldiers as they work hard to protect us and bring order to the chaos of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.

Last week our guest author, Tarek El Dousseki, M.D., Audiological Physician and Director of Audiology and BeniSwif Medical School, BeniSwif, Egypt, brought our attention to a little known problem that has an impact upon our military as well as on hearing-impaired citizens in areas of conflict.

Dr. Dousseki’s discussion from a physician’s perspective  brought our attention to a practice of signal jamming that US armed forces uses to protect our troops against improvised explosive devices while they are on patrol and during operations in these areas.  He reminds us that these jamming activities cause problems for children and other hearing-impaired patients who use cochlear implants in the area where the jamming is used.

This week Hearing International will look at the issues that necessitate the use of signal jamming and the safety that it actually creates for the troops.  Next week we will  discuss the actual issues with the implants and the problems that  jamming creates for their users in their presence.


What Signals Jam the Detonation of IEDs?

Cellular phones are commonly used today to remotely activate bombs and remote controlled improvised explosive devices – IEDs. When explosive devices or home-made bombs are connected to cell phones as detonators they can be operated from any distance, allowing terrorists to escape from crime arena and activate the improvised bomb remotely. The cell phone attached to the IED acts as a receiver, once it receives a signal from a phone transmitter it causes detonation.  A mobile phone jammer, then, is an instrument used to prevent cellular phones from receiving signals from base stations. When used in this way, the jammer effectively disables cellular phones.

These devices can be used practically anywhere, but are found primarily in places where a phone call would be particularly disruptive because silence is expected, or by the military to reduce the chance of detonation of IEDs while troops are on patrol.  The jammers may be carried in a mobile backpack style (left) or inserted/mounted into a vehicle (right) to jam signals that could set off IEDs while troops are operating.  So, cell phones work to communicate with a particular cell. As the phone moves from cell to cell the call is transferred from one tower to another.  Jamming prevents the signal from the tower and the cell from communicating.  Thus, if the phone detonator cannot receive signals, it cannot detonate.

Do IEDs Really Inflict That Much Injury?

Brook (2009) reported that at that time IEDs caused 75% of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. Flam (2011)  found that the number of those wounded by the roadside bombs in 2010 nearly tripled, to 3,366. The bombs are the biggest cause of casualties for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  It is not difficult to understand why jamming devices are now routinely deployed where soldiers are conducting operations.  Many of these troops have suffered serious injuries from IEDs, and also significant auditory deficits from their service.

When the men and women who suffer these injuries have completed their military service, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) becomes responsible for their medical care. This  includes treating any auditory problems that are a result of their  service. The incidence of hearing loss and other auditory conditions is substantially higher than in previous engagements.  That’s partly because advances in medical care have meant that a higher percentage of soldiers are surviving injuries that would have been fatal in past wars and are coming home.

Over half of the Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans who are eligible for VA care have sought it.  Of those who have sought care more than 1,600 have lost limbs, fingers or toes; 156 are blind and thousands more have impaired vision.  And as a result of the noise and the acoustic trauma resulting from IEDs, 177,000have hearing loss and 350,000 report tinnitus. These figures, of course, help make the case for the use of jamming to prevent the detonation of IEDs and thereby reduce these sorts of casualties.  Jamming definitely reduces the injuries to soldiers!

Next week we will explore the effects that jamming has on cochlear implants and the resulting difficulties that implant wearers experience in military operations areas.



About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.