The Washington Post has an interesting special feature on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the overall themes are quite common – Western forces are much less effective against insurgents than armies, low cost and low tech weapons can neutralize huge advantages in funds and technology – the specific details provided are quite interesting.
IEDs are apparently the single biggest killer of coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Partly, that is the result of not having large enough forces to monitor important routes continuously. Partly, it is the product of the sheer volume of explosives available in both states. Partly, it is the result of assistance provided by other states or sub-state groups, such as Iranian assistance being provided to some Shiite groups. Explosively formed penetrators – capable of firing six or seven pounds of copper at 2000 metres per second – are an excellent example of a relatively low cost, low-tech technology that seriously threatens a force that is far better trained, supported, and equipped overall.
Seeing how total air superiority, expensive armoured vehicles, and sophisticated electronic countermeasures can be no match for some guys with rusty old artillery shells and some wire is a humbling reminder of the limited utility of military force. Ingenuity, practicality, and humility will probably prove to be essential qualities as the US tries to find the least bad path out of Iraq, and while NATO tries to salvage the situation in Afghanistan.