By Dan Parsons
Staff Sgt. Brandon Trent from Lawrence, Kan. inspects an improvised explosive After 12 years of war in Afghanistan, a simple but effective enemy weapon — the improvised explosive device — continues to inflict casualties on U.S. and coalition forces.
device after it was blown up in place during Operation Speargun in Urmuz, Afghanistan.
Billions of dollars have been spent to find methods of finding and neutralizing homemade bombs, but enemies continue to adapt. Two combat commanders who returned from the fight just in time to see a couple of improvised bombs detonate in a major U.S. city said research into defeating them must continue.
“I would tell you there’s been significant improvements overall,” Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, commander of Regional Command Southwest and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said. “We haven’t solved the problem, obviously. It bears continued effort. This is a weapon system that I think one day we’ll be able to take off the battlefield and when we do, it’s a game changer. We have to keep investing in this heavily … because we’re going to see it again.”
Gurganus had been out of Afghanistan for seven weeks when he spoke to Washington, D.C.-area defense reporters April 18. He was joined by Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeates of the United Kingdom, who served as deputy commander, I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Often operating in developing countries, the U.K. military has come up against the IED threat multiple times in several campaigns in various climates, Skeates said. British forces learned to combat them in the “School of Hard Knocks,” and expect to encounter homemade bombs during any and every future campaign, he said.
“Our structures … in the U.K, reflect the fact that we anticipate wherever we go, whatever operating environment we’re going to be in, there will be an IED threat of some description,” Skeates said. “Therefore you have to have protective measures against it. … This can’t be an afterthought anymore. It can’t be something that we go into a campaign or a conflict waiting to see what happens.”
“I, quite frankly, don’t think the money JIEDDO spends is wasted in any shape form or fashion because if we pick up something that prevents one IED, then it was worth it,” Gurganus said.
JIEDDO research suggests that IEDs will remain an “enduring global threat” that will drive the need for new and innovative technologies and strategies to detect and defeat them in multiple environments.
“A networked and adaptive adversary aided by the latest information technology will continue to evolve and interact with other violent extremist organizations to constantly modify the design of IEDs and their methods of employment,” the latest JIEDDO report concluded.
Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were nearly 7,000 IED events in 111 countries that caused more than 12,000 casualties from January to November 2011, according to JIEDDO statistics. The carnage was caused by elements of at least 40 regional and transnational networks.
The threat came home on April 15 when two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, wounding scores and killing three. Gurganus was cautious not to blame international terrorist organizations for the attack, but said it underscores both the ease of creating an IED and the fact they can be used anywhere by anyone.
“It’s a bomb,” Gurganus said. “You can figure out how to make that just looking on the Internet. I don’t draw the conclusion that now we need to start worrying about this. I think we always should have been. It’s going to be a growing concern still. There are enough people in this world who have an ax to grind of one description or another to do things like that.”
According to JIEDDO, those with “axes to grind” include disenfranchised populations, smugglers, ordinary and organized criminals, pirates, narcotics traffickers, insurgents and terrorists.
Improvised bombs are harder to detect and destroy than landmines, because as their name suggests, they are cobbled together from whatever a bomb maker has at hand. They can be remote controlled, timed, hard-wired or connected to a pressure-plate detonator, Gurganus said.
“They can be extremely complicated and they can be extremely simple,” Gurganus said. “There is no one technical solution we’ve got. But through all the hard work and research they have brought to bear a lot of detection equipment that allows us to avoid a large amount.”
Homemade bombs are most often placed along roadsides to attack convoys, but can also be placed in trees, in walls and on roofs, he said. They can be carefully and cleverly concealed or hidden in plain sight and can be made out of virtually anything.
“Walking along roads and walking along paths is not the only dangerous spot, you have to be careful all the time,” Gurganus said. “And this is an enemy that is really sharp about how he emplaces them in terms of one here that he’ll let you see and then three or four that you really have to hunt for in close proximity.”
The most effective investment so far has been training troops to be observant of their environment and to notice subtle changes that could indicate an IED, Gurganus said. Those are lessons that must not only be imparted to the Afghan National Security Forces, but also must be retained and reinforced in U.S. and allied troops in the future, Gurganus said.
There is much discussion on Capitol Hill and within the military over what sort and size force should remain in Afghanistan after coalition forces largely leave in 2014. Until then, the focus is providing “key enablers” to the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can continue to suppress the Taliban on their own, Gurganus said.
Those enablers include medical facilities and expertise, medical and combat airlift and indirect precision artillery fire, he said. The list used to include counter-IED operations, but that capability has been largely passed to Afghan security forces, a measure Gurganus said counts as a step toward victory.
“That [counter-IED] is an area where more and more they rely on us less and less,” he said. “It is with great infrequency that they come back to us and say could we provide route clearance for this operation. They do it for themselves.”
With the ANSF taking the lead in combat operations, IEDs are beginning to take a disproportionate toll on those forces. But the increase in casualties is not deterring the Afghan Army and National Police from the mission at hand, Skeates said.
“These aren’t giant hits that they’re taking, but they are significant and I don’t want to underplay them at all,” he said. “But they are in no way impeding the Afghans’ willingness to get out there and take on the insurgents.”
Photo Credit: JIEDDO