September 30, 2005


The IED Tussle: The "improvised explosive device" may seem a humble opponent for the US military, but it is the focus of a battle of innovations pitting high-tech against low cunning (Bartle Bull, October 2005, Prospect)

During lulls in the night fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City last year, as Muqtada al Sadr’s militia turned Baghdad’s biggest ghetto into the most booby-trapped war zone on earth, it used to look to me like someone was staging Macbeth in hell. With the dark air full of dust and smoke, human figures moved over the pavement like black ghosts while car lights swerved crazily through the smog.

The spectres around me were mostly involved in planting the homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs—the insurgency’s main weapons in Iraq. The swerving cars were avoiding the Coke cans that indicated the buried bombs. And the youths hunched over the road pouring liquid into the dark bitumen would explain to me that it was kerosene they were dishing out: relatively viscous, it seeps into a road surface, and then, when lit, melts it, making digging easier. Thus the orange flames that flared all night along the boulevards. The ordinance most likely to be buried in the small pits then were 105mm howitzer shells that the guerillas called “Austrians,” after the country where the shells had been made. Wires led from detonation charges into the doorways of small, shabby mosques where other groups of teenagers in black stood around car batteries attached to the wires.

I never had contact with the other side of this battle—coalition forces—back then, but an NBC cameraman I knew told me that from the inside of a 7th Cav Bradley, these young men on the streets looked like video game targets through the thermal night vision screens inside the American armoured vehicles. One night the Bradley my friend was travelling in was hit by twelve IEDs.

The IED might seem like a relatively low-tech piece of weaponry in a military epoch of lasers, unmanned drones and smart bombs. And it might appear a humble opponent for a US military establishment 3m strong that consumes $400bn a year. But it is the defining weapon of America’s war in Iraq, and it has been the focus of a battle of innovations and counter-innovations marshalling high-tech gadgetry and low-tech cunning on both sides.

When military historians write the annals of this struggle, they will remember it as the "IED war." The IED is responsible for 80 per cent of American casualties in Iraq, and it is unprecedented in modern warfare to find a conflict so dominated by a single weapon.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2005 6:29 PM

Wretchard (Belmont Club) writes in The Unstoppable IED that the IED is like the the submarine or the bomber in previous wars. They were considered initially 'unstoppable' too, but countermeasures were quickly developed for each.

Posted by: Gideon at September 30, 2005 7:07 PM

Yeah, maximising survivability against the trifecta of IEDs, AK47s and RPGs is what the US military nneds to concentrate on.

It might be worthwhile dumping the Bradley (not very good against RPGs) and adopting the Israeli Merkava tank instead.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at September 30, 2005 7:18 PM

Thanks, gideon. Michael Yon also has several posts on IEDs, such as Jungle Law.

Posted by: joe shropshire at September 30, 2005 7:20 PM

I think that it also shows the pointlessness of gun control laws. In a high-tech society, almost anything can be a weapon, and city chess becomes possible. Civil discourse is the only protection against low level insurrection.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at September 30, 2005 7:43 PM

The IED is responsible for 80 per cent of American casualties in Iraq, and it is unprecedented in modern warfare to find a conflict so dominated by a single weapon

So IEDs have killed at most 1500 Americans in 2 years. I don't find that to be the dominant weapon of the conflict. What US weapon system hasn't killed more of the enemy than the IED has Americans? I find the US casualty count to be quite low considering the length of time we have been fighting an urban war.

Posted by: Patrick H at September 30, 2005 8:52 PM

While I agree that we should ceaselessly try to find better counters to IEDs, this is quite a cheerful line: One night the Bradley my friend was travelling in was hit by twelve IEDs.

In other words, those IEDs were ineffectual.
Unpleasant and scary, but any IED attack that you can drive away from is a good IED attack.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 30, 2005 9:49 PM

Actually, as Wretchard has pointed out, the enemy's main successes have come on the propaganda front, where their control of the tempo and terrain has been far more succesful. While there were always be room for improvements to weapons and armor, the real front for the Pentagon is the PR war.

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at September 30, 2005 10:46 PM

This IED business is absurd. The enemy is horsing around with poor men's weapons because we are allowing them to do. If we ever want to make them stop, we know how to do it. They didn't bother Tamerlane with toys like this.

Now we are not going to start piling up the mountains of skulls just yet, because we don't need to. The goal is to turn over the grunt work to the locals and let them do what they have to do to put a stop to this business.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 30, 2005 11:40 PM

Lou Gots beat me to the punch. The only reason the IED is a factor at all is because of the rules of the engagement we've written.

Posted by: Twn at October 1, 2005 10:29 AM

"Wires led from detonation charges into the doorways of small, shabby mosques"

Level the small, shabby mosques. Having seen my share combat, you just can't beat being the dirtiest bastard out there. Anything less will get you killed.

Posted by: AllenS [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 1, 2005 11:35 AM
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