Improvised response

Combating IEDs will require an agile game of action and reaction.

In a conflict rife with seemingly unanticipated military threats, one weapon in particular has come to symbolize the insurgency in Iraq: improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Like the insurgents themselves, IEDs are plentiful, difficult to identify, and far more sophisticated than they were at the beginning of the occupation. In the past year, despite enhanced armoring and other defensive measures, IEDs killed more than 400 U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq–nearly two-thirds of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq over the same period–and the rate of attacks continues to climb. With IED fatalities in Afghanistan on the rise as well, it appears the devices will be the weapon of choice for non-state adversaries for the foreseeable future.

All too well aware of this, the Defense Department has accelerated its effort to combat IEDs. In January, the 2-year-old Joint IED Defeat Task Force, headed by a one-star general, was replaced by the permanent Joint IED Defeat Organization, fronted by a retired four-star general and flush with a $3-billion budget. The Joint IED Defeat Organization is charged with coordinating efforts to develop counter-IED technology, as well as with formulating, in the words of one Defense press release, “new tactics, new techniques, and new training methods” for defeating IEDs. But this effort, while important, will never produce a lasting solution and, in fact, fails to get to the heart of the problem. Stopping IEDs will require an agile game of action and reaction, not a cumbersome Manhattan Project-type initiative in search of a technological cure-all.

Defense planners should view IEDs like medical professionals view the influenza virus, another “primitive,” adaptable, and lethal enemy. As soon as vaccines have defeated a certain flu strain, the virus evolves. So while valuable, vaccines tend to offer diminishing returns and constitute merely a piece of a much broader strategy. Likewise, IEDs are too adaptable for any fixed set of technologies to defeat. As IED countermeasures such as radio jammers, which block some remote IED detonators, have grown more popular, insurgents have turned to passive infrared sensors that detect the heat given off by vehicles and pressure plates that are triggered by the enormous weight of an armored vehicle. Similarly, as armor on light military vehicles improves, insurgents have begun using more effective explosive devices that can destroy even heavily armored vehicles.

Natural selection also acts on the IED population much as it acts on the influenza virus. Rather than rely on any single sophisticated adaptation, influenza owes its resilience to an extremely high mutation rate, which allows it to stay a step ahead of both natural and artificial immune responses. The high mutation rate of the flu virus corresponds to IEDs’ eponymous improvisational quality. Each insurgent bomb-making workshop must make do with the materials and expertise at hand, causing each to produce a weapon with different capabilities and limitations. If one workshop’s bombs prove more effective, that workshop’s techniques will “reproduce” both through increased demand for that shop’s products on the rapidly emerging IED market and through imitation–until, that is, new defenses start to engender a new breed of bombs.

All of this means the emerging counter-IED complex must select agility as its highest priority. Unfortunately, at present, the U.S. military system is “specifically designed not to be adaptive,” according to counterinsurgency expert Thomas X. Hammes, a former Marine Corps officer and author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. The flu vaccine industry, for example, has discovered that the massive capital it invested in fighting seasonal flu strains is actually hampering its ability to switch to the kind of agile, responsive industrial base needed to fight a pandemic flu; an analogous situation in the counter-IED industry would have catastrophic consequences.

Even if the industrial base can be made sufficiently agile, technical countermeasures will only be able to play a supporting role in a more robust strategy whose purpose must be to monitor and disrupt the entire network of insurgent operations. As Hammes notes, “It’s not IEDs that adapt, it’s the insurgent cells using them.” Not surprisingly, the innovative tools for doing this will generally not be technological, but cultural, logistical, and, ultimately, human. The ability of insurgents to rely on the civilian population for cover and support must be undermined, so that, ideally, the surrounding community will become a ready-made counter-IED network.

The small size of the Iraqi insurgent cells makes traditional human intelligence-gathering tactics such as infiltration difficult to apply. While individual cells might be impossible to infiltrate, however, the IED market as a whole is bound to have observable patterns that can be disrupted or exploited–not unlike a flu outbreak. For example, U.S. commanders in Iraq have reportedly used the black-market price of explosives in Iraqi cities as an indicator of the success of their efforts to disrupt the supply chain.

Finally, the fight against IEDs depends on well-planned logistics and foresight, as has every other historical military campaign. The U.S. military consumes an enormous amount of fuel that, in post-war Iraq, must be imported over land from Turkey and Kuwait. The convoys delivering this fuel are tempting targets for insurgents: in August 2005, the Army 1st Corps Support Command’s convoys alone suffered an average of about 30 IED attacks each week. As heavy armor weighs down U.S. military vehicles, making them less fuel-efficient, the fuel supply problem has only grown. U.S. military personnel have employed some novel tactical countermeasures, such as varying traffic routes, but this is far from a complete solution.

Poor planning during the reconstruction effort has compounded this problem. Post-war Iraq is now dependent on convoy-borne imported fuel for much of its domestic energy supply. IEEE Spectrum, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal, reported in its February 2006 issue that most of the electric generating units installed or refurbished after the war are running on either imported Turkish diesel or dirty, corrosive Iraqi crude oil (if they run at all).

At the same time, natural gas, which could be used far more efficiently in the same generators, is burned off as waste in Iraqi oil fields. The lack of foresight with which the Iraqi energy sector was reconstructed has left Iraq’s power grid dependent on the very same IED-plagued U.S. military supply convoys described above. While it is hard to imagine a solution to this aspect of the problem at this late stage, planners of future military adventures should bear in mind this example of the law of unintended consequences.

Public-health practitioners have long known that confronting an elusive viral adversary such as influenza requires a broad spectrum of countermeasures. Military planners would do well to learn from these veterans and look beyond the technological fix to invest in crucial cultural, logistical, and human elements. Otherwise, the IED epidemic will only continue to claim more lives.

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