Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Old and the New

Newspapers can sometimes convey the impression that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in Iraq are innovations developed in response to the US "occupation" of Iraq; a case of homegrown ingenuity defeating a hi-tech superpower. For example, the Washington Post reports:

"Clearly we are not winning the competition over tactics and counter-tactics," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst who heads Brookings' Iraq Index. "The insurgency's ability to hide IEDs better, detonate them more remotely and build them more powerfully has been at least as effective as our improvements in better armor and better tactics."

Of particular fascination to newspapermen are a newly invented type of shaped charge. 

The development of shaped charges appears to be a direct response by insurgents to the Americans' use of more heavily armored vehicles, according to soldiers and U.S. military explosives experts. Those vehicles -- principally five-ton, armor-plated Humvees -- are used by all U.S troops traveling outside military bases. ...

To fashion a shaped charge, one end of a cylindrical object such as a pipe is welded shut, and is then packed with explosive material and a conical piece of metal that becomes a molten projectile when the device is detonated. The charge is designed to focus the blast on a small area. In the case of a Humvee, the charge blasts a hole in the armor plating, propelling the scorching metal into the vehicle's cabin.

These are sometimes called SFFs or self-forging fragment warheads in technical literature, explosive devices that, through the shaping of the explosive backing behind a metal layer, create an explosive plasma slug that travels at high speeds to penetrate armor.

Self-forging warheads are used whenever a weapon of necessarily small size must try to penetrate armor ... a way to create a kinetic penetrator out of a shaped charge, without having to move it a great distance. A block of high explosive is formed with a cavity on one side ...  lined with ... malleable but reasonably dense metal. When the explosive detonates ... the thin ... sheeting ... is then pushed outward towards the target with great force by the explosion. 

Wikipedia adds that the plasma slug

can ... travel up to, and above 1000 cone diameters (CDs) before it's velocity becomes ineffective at penetrating armor due to aerodynamic drag, or hitting the target becomes a problem. ... If the SFF perforates the armor, extensive behind armor damage (BAD) ... occurs .... mainly caused by the high temperature and velocity armor and slug fragments being injected into the interior space and also overpressure (blast) caused by the impact.

That is what the shaped charges described by the Washington Post are. But although they are deadly, they are not new. A Reuters article notes they have been around, in one form or another, for a long time. 

Tim Ripley, special correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly said armour-piercing was "pretty old technology" and shaped charges had been used since World War Two. "It's nothing a decent car repair workshop couldn't come up with," he said.

What's more, all the types of IEDs that US is encountering in Iraq have been killing thousands of civilians all over the world for the last twenty five years under the name of landmines. This map from the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) has most of Africa and large parts of the Southwest and Southeast Asia colored in. A fascinating manual in PDF format prepared by the GICHD's technical consultants describes every major type of mine that its workers can expect to encounter, as well as prescribing the engineering principles and armor thickenesses that are required in vehicles to defeat them. The mine types described are:

  1. blast;
  2. fragmentation (omnidirectional and directional);
  3. hollow charge;
  4. self-forming fragment;

What is fascinating is how the "reference" types of threats described by GICHD, that is the mines most commonly encountered, are Soviet bloc types. Mines are in fact, the most lasting legacy of the Soviet bloc to the Third World, where they are employed as originally designed or in an improvised manner identical to Iraq.

anti-personnel mine blast type PMN, PMD-6, Type 72
anti-personnel mine fragmentation type POM-Z, OZM-4, OZM-72, PROM-1
anti-tank blast type TM46, TM57, TMA-3
anti-tank blast under wheel TM46, TM57, TMA-3
anti-tank blast under hull TM46, TM57, TMA-3
anti-tank HC AT-4
anti-tank SFF TMRP-6, TMRP-7, TMK-2
heavy-size UXO 250-500 kilogram aircraft bombs


According to the United Nations, the 10 countries with the most land mines still in place are:

(source CNN)

Afghanistan 9-10 million 
Angola 9 million
Iraq  5-10 million
Kuwait  5 million
Cambodia  4-7 million
Western Sahara 1-2 million 
Mozambique  1-2 million 
Somalia  1 million 
Bosnia-Herzegovina  1 million 
Croatia 1 million

Stacked or linked IEDs -- landmines, in other words -- were already commonly used to attack armored vehicles in Africa a generation ago. The GICHD manual says on page 14:

Double anti-tank blast mines became common during the middle of 1978 in the former South West Africa with the advent of the first generation mine-protected vehicles (MPVs). These mines appeared in both the linked or “goggle” configuration causing blast effect directly under the vehicle hull or, in the stacked configuration (triple mines were not uncommon), detonating underneath the wheel.

It's not coincidental that many of the armored vehicles now making their way to Iraq are related to designs pioneered in Africa, featuring high cabs and V-shaped armor capsules. (BTW, did you know that filling tires with water greatly attenuates blast damage?) SFFs (in particular the Soviet TMK-2 HC mine which dates from 1955) were also in use to attack protected vehicles in Africa, whose designers naturally tried to figure out countermeasures. Because SFF warheads depend on the formation of the plasma slug some protection schemes devised against them are based on preventing the slug's formation. On page 24 of the GICHD manual we have:

The Munroe effect associated with HC mines requires a stand-off distance in free air to form the high-speed jet. This stand-off distance is usually determined by the cone diameter and length of the charge. The optimal formation of this high-speed jet can be prevented by positioning a “capture plate” between the vehicle hull and the ground surface. This capture plate can cause the break-up of the jet. This will reduce the penetration capability of the jet against the vehicle hull.


The use of IEDs has long been a feature of warfare in Africa and Southwest Asia. Iraqi insurgents, with strong ties to the Al Qaeda and Soviet bloc-trained advisers, would have a great deal of access to these types of attack techniques. The media have recently commemorated the 2,000th US military death in Iraq. What's not commonly realized is that those casualties share something in common with the 26,000 civilians who die each year from landmines. They've been killed by the very methods the late Princess Diana campaigned against. If the US is ever forcibly expelled from Iraq, it is virtually certain to be called upon to return by the United Nations, to remove at American expense the weapons, once glorious, that will have instantly transformed themselves to instruments of evil.


Blogger deeds not fap said...

Many features/characteristics of IEDs seem to play memetically well with an audience you seek to persuade into despair and fear (Wretchards media-combined arms model).

For instance, their placement denotes a sense of lack of control (this is certainly always referenced in the same sentence as even US successes), that there is some significant degree of "chaos" that the US cannot quite quell. They project images of a prolific albeit random violence, (though isn't IED activity quite (or at least discrete) in its usage/deployment in Iraq. The pervasive random violence works well to picture an ineffectual and naive United States. IEDs have become THE grand nemesis in iraq. Its seemingly provocative to suggest of course that this phenomenon of IEDs is more closely related to that of mines than to a wily 4th generation warfare opponent. The media has cast IEDs in a role possibly beyond their range then?

So was the IED chosen by the media-combined arms folks to engage viewers specifically? Or aren't there other compelling reasons to deploy those during an insurgency?

I've always wondered if the media-combined arms version of the Tet Offensive would be the capture of a US soldier - which somehow seems to not have happened yet, right? Its really pretty miraculous we haven't had to see the next iteration of this stuff. Heres hoping it dies in the sands of Iraq.

10/27/2005 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger jonewer said...

I have always maintaied that the US/UK armies could learn much about counter-mine warfare from the Rhodesians and South Africans.

10/27/2005 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger jonewer said...

Have a look at pookie

By the way Wretchard- this has to be the most foolishly optimistic blog in the whole history of the internet!

10/27/2005 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

jonewer - it is also not required reading. nor commenting.

10/27/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Christerical said...

As you say, there is nothing new about IEDs or shaped charges.

In WWII the Germans equiped their tanks with side plates to protect them against shaped charge weapons. Improvised defenses, such as spare track links were also used as was a special thick paste coating.

Modern Western armoured vehicles use armour built up of metal and ceramic layers to neutralise these weapons, while the Russians use explosive armour, which by blowing up disrupts the focused jet.

10/27/2005 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


Thanks for the Pookie link, which describes a specialized vehicle for demining roads in Zibabwe and Eritrea that's been around since the 1970s. It perfectly illustrates a point I've often made about September 11. The only new thing about it was that it happened in America. Suicide bombs, vehicle bombs, IEDs -- the whole gamut of terrorist tactics -- has been waged against Third Worlders for a long time; and against Americans too in places like Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and East Africa.

The only thing different about today, such as in places like Iraq, is that America is fighting back. That may be what people find objectionable or what you find an foolishly optimistic undertaking. I'm grateful to you for pointing out an instance illustrating that IED warfare has been waged unanswered and unnoticed for a long time.

10/27/2005 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger jonewer said...

Oooo nahncee!!

But I enjoy reading hopless optimism.

Say, I read somewhere that these IEDs are detonated by infra-red? Why is this so difficult to counter? This isnt new technology and surely us anlgo-saxons can defeat this with a bit of that old-time innovation that brought us through dubya dubya too?

10/27/2005 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger Vercingetorix said...

Yeah, it's pretty amazing that the greatest tactical innovation for the insurgents is to progress 1200 years from their political aspirations to 1950s tactics. Like the great "success" of bombing the Palestine Hotel (should it have worked, it would have been a catastrophic reversal for the insurgents, media-wise, so the best that can be said is that they were incompetent), the bar for the insurgents is so drearily low, they merely have to show up for work to be crowned victorious. Resistance would have to drop instantly and everywhere across the board at all times, forever, for the US to win the "competition of tactics and countertactics," which is pretty, dang hard to do.

But I give up. Let's let the kindergarten bombers have the Middle East. Obviously this is monolithic media (which is impossible to control; we now quote directly from DOD sources, foreign media, and now we have multiple venues of news, radio, TV including cable, newspapaers, magazines, and the internet) war, so let them have at it. Jihadis in one corner, makeup artistes in the other. Go!

10/27/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

The US is actually the largest funder of Third World humanitarian landmine clearance programs, a fact that gets almost no recognition. But some newspapers actually convey the impression that the US, by not removing mines in the Korean DMZ, where there are almost no civilian casualties, is the main problem nation in the demining effort. There's a very neat division on labor in this area. The ex-Commie nations supply the mines and the expertise to deploy them (infra-red, Jonewer?); the US pays for their removal and gets blamed for planting them in the first place.

The real genius of the Left is to be able to do whatever you want and then snark down at anybody you want.

10/27/2005 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger jonewer said...


Thanks for the reply. It should be noted though that the majority of mines encountered by the Rhodesians were of Eastern-bloc build and were therefore not 'Improvised'. (the remainder were western devices stolen from a line of mines and barbed wire planted by self-same Rhodies).

What IS novel in Iraq is that they ARE improvised and left not in the road but [i]by the side of it[/i] Thus, Pookie would be of relatively little value.......

By the way, read up on the Selous Scouts, its fascinating stuf!!! My brother-in-law was one and if you are wondering what eating rotten baboons does to you, he has a mental age of 16 (or so it seems).

Nonetheless, I cant see why Pookie hant been used to clear mines in places like Mozambique and Cambodia.... no-one ever died driving a pookie!

10/27/2005 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...


The outlook here is only foolishly optimistic to the degree that so many other sources are suicidally despairing. I suppose if there was a band depicting outlooks like the electromagnetic spectrum with calm, true enlightenment in the center, and all the rest of us like radiating frequencies, Belmont would be somewhat closer to the center than, say, the NYT op-ed page, where the darkness is constantly closing all around us. At least since 1/20/01.

I could see this old-fashioned type of warfare leading to the situation in the future where only extremely high value targets are occupied, while the remainder are reduced by stand-off weapons. That's a happy thought for an optimist, eh?

Now that the UN Report on Oil-for-Food scam is out, and Saddam has been shown to be effective in compromising our fellow Security Council members, do you think the endless remonstrances to have all decisions of import be decided in concert with the corrupt Russians, French and Chinese will end? I expect this news, like the news of the Iraqi Constitution's successful vote will be slipped between the covers of Doom and Gloom, never to be mentioned by proper people.

10/27/2005 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger kstagger said...

The Germans during WWII had the Panzerfaust disposable rocket launcher which used a shaped charge that could apparently penetrate up to 17cm of steel


10/27/2005 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger sirius_sir said... the whole history of the internet!

Slow down there, little fella. There's still a long long way to go.

10/27/2005 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Annoy Mouse said...

Shaped charges have been around for a long time. The Monroe Effect (1885), was based even earlier work (1792) for the heavy mining industry.

Most recently shaped charges have entered into the Iraqi theater special thanks to the god loving folks of Iran.

I have seen SFF’s that look like a Jiffy-Pop pie tin that you stick in the ground. Upon remote detonation the metal bends into a shape that looks like plum stuffed into a napkin as it flies with great speed towards an armored vehicle with a range up to a hundred meters or so.

I worked on an early version of the Vehicular Array Mine Detection System (VAMIDS). This particular unit was based on the Alvin APC. It was re-badged in the UK because the US had a military export embargo against those bad people in South Africa.

I designed a shock proof rack for the electronics equipment in the interior that required creating a thru-hull fitting near the drivers side firewall. I was joking about this that or the other thing when I was thoroughly upbraided by the retired SADF EOD expert that ‘came along’ with the vehicle, he in the harshest terms possible described to me how his best friend was cut in half by a sheet of sand that sprayed into the vehicle when a thru-hull fitting was breached. I worked the rest of the project with unwavering decorum. The last I saw of the Alvin was in a picture at the proving ground, it was at the top of what was estimated a 45 foot tumbling apogee after the Army Colonel had a 60 pound high explosive placed under the axle instead of four feet outside of the axle because he didn’t want us to win.

To state that all US forces are driving around in up-armored Humvees is an outrageous twist of fact. I think it is fair to say that the media has not commemorated, but ‘celebrated’ the 2000th death.

The US is not a signatory to treaties banning the use of land mines because it is an important delaying tactic for small unit operations while evading a closely pursuing enemy. It is to the US’s great credit that mines are being developed that either deactivate themselves after a time or detonate. I think though, that you can thank China for being the most prolific exporter of anti-personnel mines… these are the ones that are blowing off the feet of countless school children. But as the world is busy chastising the US, bigger issues are not being addressed.

10/27/2005 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Doug Santo said...

The notion that the US is losing to the insurgency in Iraq because the terrorist/insurgents are able to effectively hide and modify IED's is similar to arguing that the German’s should have won WWII because they were ahead of the allies in certain weapons systems; like the jet fighter or missile technology.

On second thought, that is not a good analogy. The terrorist/insurgents have nowhere near the sophistication or resources that the Germans had and are nowhere near as formidable an enemy. Often, it seems, political agendas manifest themselves in the most unlikely of places. It is becoming increasingly hard to find Iraq war analysis that is balanced and unaffected by the political considerations of the analyst. This is especially true of Iraq war analysis reported by western media outlets.

It is true that IEDs are difficult to counter. However, implying that this fact somehow indicates the US is losing in Iraq is total nonsense. This type of commentary is meant to color popular opinion in the US. Most Americans hear a report like that and either don’t have the inclination or the interest to analyze it and come to their own opinion.

The techniques and tactics of the terrorist/insurgents have not been successful. US and Coalition forces are slowly and constantly applying pressure to the enemy. Available reports indicate the insurgency has been hurt. Senior leaders are captured or dead. New enemy leaders are relatively inexperienced. The recent attack against the Palestine Hotel was an obvious attempt to play to the only strength the terrorist/insurgents have – western media. Iraqi opinion has turned against the enemy. Western liberals, European elites, the western press, and Islamic extremists are the only parties who still believe in the viability of the insurgency.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

10/27/2005 02:47:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew Scotia said...

Essays like this take my breath away as do the informed comments I find here.

The Internet/Web nexus has to be the ultimate tool for the autodidactic polymath. And, search engines are our prayer wheels.

10/27/2005 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

Santos sloganeers:

The techniques and tactics of the terrorist/insurgents have not been successful.

Au contraire. Quite effective. For a 600-700 million operating expense and a 20 - 30,000 strong resistance, that has taken 16-20,000 casualties in 3 years they have:

1. Inflicted 16,000 US casualties and 30,000 Iraqi ones. Though we are ahead in body counts, many survivors of IEDs are permanently maimed and crippled. All but a few of the insurgents in jail will be released in a few years.

2. Cost the US 220 billion and growing so far, a 25 to 1 spending edge.

3. Delayed reconstruction and caused a huge drop in the respect and admiration of the US throughout the Muslim world.

4. Discredited the neocons. No one is talking - except Michael Ledeed - of "Faster, faster, please" - more cakewalk wars.
And damaged Bush's Presidency.

5. Caused a big loss of face for US policy globally.

6. Shown with the IED that low tech with human ingenuity trumps high tech, dollar for dollar, possibly even casualty for casualty. Any better armor can be beaten by a better bomb.

The US will win on preponderance of resources and logistics while cutting off outside help for the insurgents. Slow, slogging. Winning the attrition battle. But more on the Soviets vs. Finns model that the "High Tech Wonder Soldier" model Bush and Rumsfeld loved so much after Afghanistan.

10/27/2005 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Annoymouse, thanks for the tremendous post on physics and puny human technology.

One time in a visit to an EOD "library" I held one of the Soviet "butterflies." It was pink, plastic, the size of a large keychain fob, roughly shaped like a butterfly. They were made in that shape because they would flutter and auto-disperse when air-dropped. And also because kids and curious natives would pick them up. They would lose a hand or foot to this random war against people.

Notice we're not doing any of that.

Imaginary "damage to this Presidency" be damned. Don't mean nothin', walk on.

10/27/2005 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger Red A said...

I've seen "cages" newly placed on the outside of Strykers.

Is that only for RPG's or would they also mess up an SFF?

10/27/2005 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

I find it just a risible commentary on the puerile innumeracy the libs wallow in that they think that doubling the peacetime death rate of just fielding a reasonable military at all during what appears to be the height of the GWoT is surely demanding of immediate surrender to the cavemen/ beheaders!

Look it up yourself:

A run rate of nearly 800 military deaths per year in 2000 with no war in progress.

And in the early 80s the military death rate from accidents ALONE was twice the yearly death rate we have now in Iraq with what I'm estimating was a 50% higher force level than now (post Clinton of course). And speaking of the oh so meaningful 2000 mark, in the early 80s the yearly military death total was over 2000 consistently.

Another way to look at it is that we have raised the military death rate from 50 per 100,000 per year recently to back up around 100 per 100,000 per year -- again, about the run rate that the military somehow survived in the early 80s with no war in progress.

Where was the rage and anguish in the early 80s? Well of course, if they complained about that then anyone with no more than a kindergarten degree would demand that they be immediately committed to the insane asylum as they would be in anything resembling a rational world.

Power Line also had an interesting take on this here:

I also laughed when one of the MSM (I forget which one) let the curtain slip -- probably being too stupid to even realize they did -- and actually broke down the 2000 as including 400 accidents and 1600 deaths from action!

For further calibration, the U.S. runs at approximately 13 deaths per 100,000 per year from auto accidents alone.

And also a sad commentary on the inefficacy of our educational system that the analytical and math skills of the population aren't able to immediately slice this kind of buncombe to shreds. But then that might be because the libs and Gramscian neo-Syndicalists have been strangling the life out of our educational system for a few too many years, no?

You do remember Antonio Gramsci, right?

10/27/2005 09:56:00 PM  
Blogger Karridine said...

I see the same media spin as C4 attempts: when the insurgents do it, its keen and brilliant (even when its murderous and counter-productive).

When America does ANYTHING even resembling it, America is clumsy, naive, ignorant, wasteful, driven by poisoned motives, deranged, blind and shameful.

Did I miss anything?

10/27/2005 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

carridine: Yes. "Stupidly optimistic".

10/27/2005 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Kerry said...

These "Clearly we are not winning..." statements ought to include the second half of the assumption. "I know what winning looks like, and since I do not see this, clearly..." This reasoning sound like the atheist creed: Because thus and such evil, or disease, or injustice exists, there is no God, because if there were, this evil, unjustice etc. would not exist. Therefore..."Clearly..."I think both are fallacious.

10/28/2005 05:09:00 AM  
Blogger james wilson said...

"Fukuyama came to the conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism ought to be allowed to collapse within itself." I'm confused, because it seemed to me that is essentially what we were doing for thirty years, while the stink only grew. There is a futher problem. This is a virus that needs a weak and ignorant host. Europe has become that. It will absorb nothing but the virus.

10/29/2005 11:46:00 PM  

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