More Than Technology Needed to Defeat Roadside Bombs

By Harvey M. Sapolsky and Michael Schrage
No weapon has been more effective against U.S. forces in combat than improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have so far killed more 3,000 Americans and wounded many thousand more.

As the wars wind down, the U.S. military should assess the effort to counter IEDs because it is likely to have to meet the same or similar asymmetric challenges in the future. The focused effort to counter them began with an Army IED Task Force in 2004. With the attacks continuing to mount, Gen. John Abizaid, then U.S. Central Command commander, called for a Manhattan like project to deal with the IED threat. The Defense Department’s response was the creation in February 2006 of the Joint Improvised Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which reports directly to the deputy secretary of defense and which has since spent more than $25 billion to counter the threat.

The Manhattan Project analogy, of course, is a poor one because that was a highly secret effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. In essence the bomb project was the search for a silver bullet, the single weapon to win the war. In contrast, the IED effort had to be a rapid analysis and acquisition counter measure fight in large part because IED technologies kept changing in response to U.S. fielding of counter measures. Some are radio commanded, others wired, and others are triggered by pressure plates.

JIEDDO and others recognized early that it had to go far to the “left of boom” to truly defeat IEDs, that it had to prevent them from being emplaced because the discovery and dismantlement of IEDs, even if successful, greatly disrupt coalition operations, especially the movement of forces and supplies. Moreover, some would always avoid detection and kill their targets. The mantra became destroy the network, identify those who finance and recruit the bomb builders and planters and get to them. Thus a premium was placed on gaining the specific intelligence that would allow U.S. forces to roll up the bomb networks through raids and arrests.

The fact that the IED struggle would be won only by defeating the networks, which ultimately requires defeating the insurgency, is the source of much of the frustration that Congress has had with JIEDDO. Domestic political support eroded as the war in Iraq dragged on. Politicians wanted a reduction in casualties, but under the American command structure, JIEDDO has no control over operations. It develops new technology and helps train the force, but only advises the joint commanders who manage the fight. Thus, while JIEDDO spent billions acquiring such useful equipment items as electronic jammers and ground penetrating radars, the battle to roll up the networks depended ultimately upon the success of the counterinsurgency effort, not on any science or engineering magic.

JIEDDO’s focus on the left of boom was tactically sound, but conceptually deficient. In early 2007, before the tide turned, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered a separate massive initiative to acquire mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles to help troops survive after the detonation. Morale had been shaken by the unpredictable and deadly attacks. Even tanks and other armored vehicles offer little protection from underside blasts. The investment in MRAPs with their V-shaped hulls and extra armor eventually exceeded $20 billion, and though it was resisted by some senior officers who saw the vehicles as operationally limited and defeatable by larger bombs, it helped reassure the public and the troops that the government cared for the safety of those in the fight.

Even though IED attacks and casualties in Iraq dropped, the insurgency in Afghanistan heated up with IEDs again being the enemy’s prime weapon. The dilemma remains the same. You need to defeat the insurgency to defeat IEDs. MRAPs are a passing palliative. The enemy has adapted.  

Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan call the bigger IEDs “Buffalo killers” for the type of MRAP that they can destroy. The JIEDDO lesson then must be that technological simple asymmetric attacks require a politically adept response: a rapid acquisition process to field counter measures, but also reassurance for those facing the attacks that you will not spare the protective effort until the source of the attacks is eliminated.

References to Manhattan projects symbolize to the public the mobilization of national resources to solve a problem, especially one with a technology solution. IEDs do not have such a solution. What was needed was a way to buy political time until those who plant IEDs could be suppressed. The joint counterinsurgency manual, the assemblage of best practices that Generals David Petraeus and James Mattis prepared, essentially did that, giving hope that there was a way to stop the insurgency. Missing then was what Gates recognized, protection for the troops who were going to be exposed to IEDs. MRAPs did that if only temporarily. Given time, insurgencies can be defeated. The insurgents’ asymmetric challenges are not the real problem. Political will is.

Harvey M. Sapolsky is professor of political science, emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the former director of the MIT Security Studies Program. Michael Schrage is a research associate at the MIT Security Studies Program.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices

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