The Unstoppable IED
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are more than physical objects, they are symbols of asymmetrical warfare, along with the suicide bomb and the sniper. They are exemplars of 'insoluble' threats against which resistance is supposedly futile and to which surrender is the only viable response. In times past, the submarine and bombing aircraft occupied the same psychological space. In the late 19th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan theorized that sea control, exercised through battlefleets, would be the arbiters of maritime power. But rival theorists believed weaker nations using motor torpedo boats and above all, the submarine, could neutralize battlefleets. The way to checkmate global superpower Britain, so the theory went, was through asymmetrical naval warfare.
In the early days of World War 1, three British armored cruisers HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy were patrolling the North Sea making no attempt to zigzag. The German U-9 fired a single torpedo into the Aboukir which promptly sank. HMS Hogue gallantly raced up to rescue survivors, believing the Aboukir was mined and came right into the U-9's sights. She was sunk in turn. The HMS Cressy, believing both were mined, sped like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery into another one of the U-9s torpedoes. In under an hour the asymmetrical weapon had killed 1,459 British sailors and sunk three cruisers.
In the 1930s the bomber airplane took the place of the U-boat as the unstoppable weapon in the public's imagination. Fired by the concepts of Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet, many interwar policymakers believed that bomber aircraft alone could bring a nation to its knees. The destructive capacity ascribed to the biplane bombers of the day approached that later attributed to nuclear weapons during the Cold War and so terrified politicians that it fueled the policy of appeasement. According to Wikipedia:
The calculations which were performed on the number of dead to the weight of bombs dropped would have a profound effect on the attitudes of the British authorities and population in the interwar years, because as bombers became larger it was fully expected that deaths from aerial bombardment would approach those anticipated in the Cold War from the use of nuclear weapons. The fear of aerial attack on such a scale was one of the fundamental driving forces of British appeasement in the 1930s.
Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons in words calculated to convey the futility of war that "the bomber will always get through. The only defense is in offense, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves." From there, as with those who ascribe the same irresistibility to the suicide bomber, it was natural to turn to appeasement. And that was what Baldwin did. Yet in an ironic twist of history, it was not the 'weaker' nations which successfully turned the submarine and the bombing airplane into decisive weapons but their intended victims. The USN presided over the only ultimately triumphant submarine blockade in history against Japan, while the Army Air Corps fielded the Enola Gay over Hiroshima. One possible reason for this reversal of fortunes is that neither the submarine nor the bombing aircraft existed in a state of ultimate perfection, invincible per se. Rather, they were effective relative to the countermeasures that could be deployed against them. They were one thread of an arms race spiral and their advocates found these weapons neutralized and ultimately turned against them by the very nations they sought to destroy.
IEDs have grown from relatively weak and simple devices into sophisticated demolitions weighing several hundred pounds in response to American countermeasures which began with uparmoring vehicles to monitoring patrol routes for disturbances in the roadway. As American countermeasures have improved, so has the IED, but not to the same degree. Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Task Force said that while the incident rate of IED attacks has gone up, the probability of death per attack has declined from 50% in 2003 to about 18% in early 2005. The Iraqi insurgency may be detonating more IEDs than ever but their yield per attack is not what it used to be. USA Today reported: "While IED attacks have increased, U.S. casualties from them have gone down. From April 2004 to April 2005, task force spokesman Dick Bridges said, the number of casualties from IED attacks had decreased 45%."
To regain effectiveness, the enemy has turned bigger explosives and better triggering devices and aimed them at more lucrative targets. David Cloud of the New York Times describes what this means.
The explosion that killed 14 Marines in Haditha, Iraq, on Wednesday was powerful enough to flip the 25-ton amphibious assault vehicle they were riding in, in keeping with an increasingly deadly trend, American military officers said. ... on July 23 ... a huge bomb buried on a road southwest of Baghdad Airport detonated an hour before dark underneath a Humvee carrying four American soldiers. The explosive device was constructed from a bomb weighing 500 pounds or more that was meant to be dropped from an aircraft, according to military explosives experts, and was probably Russian in origin. The blast left a crater 6 feet deep and nearly 17 feet wide. All that remained of the armored vehicle afterward was the twisted wreckage of the front end, a photograph taken by American officers at the scene showed. The four soldiers were killed.
In response, USA Today reports the deployment of more (and presumably better) electronic jammers and new directed energy weapons.
The Pentagon now has about 4,200 portable electronic jamming devices in Iraq and more are on the way, Bridges said. The military is about to test a new device at its Yuma, Ariz., proving ground that is capable of exploding bombs by sending an electrical charge through the ground. That device, called a Joint Improvised Explosive Device Neutralizer (JIN), could be deployed to Iraq sometime this year if tests prove successful, Bridges said.
Many bomb jammers work by preventing the triggerman from sending his detonation signal to the explosive device. Other equipment relies on detecting the electronic components of bombs, which echo a signal from a sniffer. The JIN neutralizer, now being test fielded to Iraq is an interesting application of directed energy weaponry. It works by using lasers to create a momentary pathway through which an electrical charge can travel and sending a literal bolt of lightning along the channel. A link to a Fox News video report on the manufacturer's website shows a vehicle equipped with a strange-looking rod detonating hidden charges at varying distances, some out to quite a ways.
Just as the enemy has resorted to bigger bombs to defeat better armor, so too will they seek ways to defeat the new American countermeasures. Yet it seems clear that the IED, like the submarine and bombing airplane before it, is not some mystically invincible device, but simply a weapon like any other caught up in a technological race with countermeasures arrayed against it. One consequence of this development is that while the enemy may employ larger numbers of IEDs against Americans, the number of effective IEDs -- the bigger and better ones -- available to them may actually have declined. The penalty for raising weaponry to a higher standard is making existing stock somewhat obsolete.
Yet a more fundamental problem may be in store for the enemy. By engaging America in a technological arms race of sorts they are playing to its strengths. The relative decline in IED effectivity suggests the enemy, while improving, has not kept up. The move to bigger bombs may temporarily restore his lost combat power, but the advent of new American countermeasures plus increasing pressure on the bombmakers, means he must improve yet again. It is far from clear whether the insurgents can stay in the battle for innovation indefinitely. The logic of asymmetric warfare suggests the enemy will at some point abandon the direct technological weapons race and find a new paradigm of attack entirely. That is essentially what they did when they abandoned the Republican Guard tank formation in favor of the roadside bomb in the first place.
One way to achieve this (and they have been perfecting their skills by attacks against Iraqi civilians) is to switch to other targets. In this way, they can find employment for weapons and skills which are no longer effective against American combat forces. The other is to invent some other surpassingly vicious method of attack; to create the successor to the IED. Whatever that new paradigm turns out to be, it will be probably be regarded as an unanswerable weapon, like the biplane bombers of the 1930s.