Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Disappointment Over IEDs

Our new best buds over at Defense Tech (who tripled our traffic with this link today, thanks guys) have an article on the failure of the Pentagon to come up with an effective counter to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the so-called roadside bombs that have killed the bulk of US troops in Iraq. The article is link-filled and fair. It notes that there had been the promise of a "Manhattan Project" to develop and field IED countermeasures, and this promise has largely come to naught.

Two years ago, I used the thwarted assassination of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to express my hopes that the US DoD would engage in a crash program to counter IEDs. Rather than the Manhattan Project, I was thinking of another instance where the US military-industrial complex responded to a new and dangerous threat in record time -- the Wild Weasel program:

A jamming device in the motorcade of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan apparently saved him from a radio-detonated bomb on December 14 [2003] that suspected Islamic militants had planted to assassinate him. The president’s convoy was at least 30 seconds clear of the bridge where the bomb had been planted before the bomb went off, destroying the bridge but hurting no one. As the AP reported it: "The sophisticated bomb – initially estimated to contain 550 pounds of explosives – was believed to include both a remote control and a timing device to trigger it, two intelligence officials told AP. Jamming equipment in Musharraf’s limousine stopped the timer for about a minute and also jammed the remote control, the officials said."

The technology to jam radio-detonated bombs or set them off too late or prematurely to affect their intended target is not a particularly exotic one. Moreover, the supporting electronic-intelligence (ELINT) technologies to monitor cell phones and walkie-talkies – the guerilla’s battlefield network – are also available to modern armies. I have been told off the record by industry sources that one contingent of Western forces serving in Afghanistan would not deploy until they had been provided with convoy protection against roadside bombs. It’s fairly amazing to think that units patrolling the roads of Afghanistan and Iraq wouldn’t all be equipped with jammers similar to the one that apparently saved President Musharraf’s life. It can’t be because such systems aren’t already available or can’t be developed quickly.

The story of the US Wild Weasels in Vietnam is one that Old Crows delight in recounting. The Soviet-supplied SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came as a nasty shock to US aircrews operating over North Vietnam in 1965. Planes and lives were being lost. Less than a year later, crash programs of technology development and training in new tactics produced the SAM-killing Wild Weasel teams. The achievement was a result of several factors coming together. First, there was a moment of clarity. The SAM threat was so universally perceived that typically clogged bureaucratic channels opened to allow the solution through. Second, there were great people on hand. People in industry and the services, in uniform and out, were willing to put in the overtime required to get the job done in the fewest number of days possible. Days equaled lives. Finally, there was an aggressiveness of spirit among all involved, from the labs to the cockpits. The enemy has what? We can beat that. We will beat that.

I like to think that the wheels are in motion right now to come up with new ideas, technologies, and training to combat the threat posed by remote-detonated bombs. The need to get countermeasures for land-convoy protection out into the field in Iraq is just as pressing as was the need to counter enemy SAMs in North Vietnam. Of course, it is possible that US and allied forces are already well supplied with such devices. There were reports in the fall that the Pentagon is spending money to this effect. Jammers do not have an effect on attacks by suicide bombers or human-aimed weapons, such as small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and these have become the preferred weapons used by guerillas in Iraq. Furthermore, US forces have thwarted a number of ambushes, and one can speculate as to what ELINT systems were available to monitor enemy communications.

I am looking forward to finding out about the "Wild Weasel" program to equip US ground forces with jammers in response to the threat posed by remote-detonated bombs. My only question would be: Why weren’t the forces equipped with countermeasures before hand?

There are a lot of reasons why this hasn't happened. For one thing, the SA-2 Guideline was an "regular" weapon that had to be fielded and operated by well-trained crews using fairly rigid tactics. Therefore, a technological-tactical counter to it could be developed and fielded, and the Wild Weasels were the result. An IED is exactly the opposite sort of weapon. There is no single IED template that can be countered. Means of employment and detonation are myriad. There is no "silver bullet" to defeat them.

But this doesn't make the lack of success any less disappointing. And I just hope it wasn't about money.


At 2:08 AM, Blogger Stealth43 said...

I just wanted to say that my cousin (Army) is over in Iraq right now, and they field test, and crash (field) test anti-IED countermeasures as soon as said are developed. Some of the R and D is acually done over in the field. You seem to have the impression that the military is either too incompetent, or doesn't care about defending troops against this threat. The fact of the matter is they do care, and are using all the resources they have to deal with this issue, as they have been (regardless of silly media coverage/blather) since it became an issue. They don't however, have the time, energy, or inclination to deal with every random blogger who has a misinformed gripe. It is not about the money, but rather about the fact that as old tactics are blocked the terrorists adopt new tactics much more quickly than a military/industrial complex like the soviets (who could be spied on much more effectively). That makes at least part of your 'analogy' false. First, cellphones were used, then radios of various frequencies, now its infrared. The terrorist orginisation has much more flexibility in terms of quick tactic and technology changes than we do. Please dont confuse struggles with a lack of caring, thats just so petty (politic).

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Michael Puttre said...


I don't think I was saying that the lack of an effective fielded countermeasure to IEDs is the result of a lack of caring. As I pointed out, the very nature of IEDs precludes a silver bullet solution. You mention the evolving nature of the IED command-detonation technology, which I acknowledge.

What does concern me is perhaps a failure of imagination in dealing with the IED threat. You say that the enemy simply changes the IED template as the US fields countermeasures -- a point cited on the TOC blog:


But I do wonder why the counters for each of these successive remote-detonation technologies was not anticipated and a countermeasure prepared for it. It's not like the technologies you cite are exotic or unpredictable.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger vader_jg said...

There may not be a silver bullet, but just doing something will keep them off balance.

If I am right, the orginal IEDs had wire control, then radio control and now maybe cell phone. I could see laser amd mass detection comming to replace radio remote control. Maybe even triggered by the jamming signal. The enemy can get very inventive.

Never the less, doing something will keep them off balance and force them to adapt.

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Stealth43 said...

Failure of imagination? I can assure you, that simply isnt the case. Difficulty in adapting perhaps, due to the nature of our military and industrial hierarchy (red tape and process oriented delays). But, as I said, no expense has been spared in dealing with this issue; AND the process is being expidited as much as possible.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Michael Puttre said...


That is good news and I am glad to be wrong if that is the case. The "small wars" we will see in the future will require immagination, flexibility, and a sense of urgency. And people like your cousin to proof concepts and make them work.



At 12:41 AM, Blogger Joe Katzman said...

Over at Defense Industry Daily, we've covered a number of technologies currently being used to beat IEDs: MTRS robots, ICE jammers, JINs, Warlocks, EA-6B Prowlers at times - even remote controlled Radio Shack cars. Many have indeed been rushed into operation, and refined quickly in cooperation with field soldiers.

Anti-sniper systems, too. So yeah, there's lots going on. It has to be combined with doctrine and training, however, or it's all close to useless. Fortunately, that's happening too.

At the moment, the number of IEDs that go off without hurting anyone is something like 80% according to the reports I've seen. Iran, Syria, and the Islamist paramilitary death squads will continue to work on the other 20%, making it a race.

At 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's July 2006, and I just wanted to point out that the number of troops killed each month is about the same (100) as it was a year ago or even longer, but the number of IED "events" has gone up by a factor of two or more. In other words, the adopted countermeasures have gotten better and better, but the IED implantation teams have either gotten more efficient or more numerous.


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