Improvised explosive devices

Trash in the Rideau Canal locks

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Improvised explosive devices”

  1. Nice photo today, incidentally. The tilt is characteristic of your work.

  2. In Memory of Michael Vinay Bhatia ’99

    Michael Vinay Bhatia ’99 died yesterday in Afghanistan, where he was working as a social scientist in consultation with the US Defense Department.

    Michael was a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He was awarded a George C. Marshall Scholarship in 2001 and a Scoville Peace Fellowship in 2000, supporting residence at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC.

    He was working on his dissertation, titled “The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005,” based on 350 interviews with combatants throughout Afghanistan, as well as archival and media research. He has also conducted research in Afghanistan for the Overseas Development Institute, the Small Arms Survey, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the UK Department for International Development (via the International Policy Institute, King’s College, London), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

    Before his fellowship at the Institute, he was a sessional lecturer on the causes of war in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

  3. Michael Bhatia

    His dissertation is titled The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005, which is based on 350 interviews with combatants throughout Afghanistan, as well as archival and media research. He has conducted research in Afghanistan for the Overseas Development Institute, the Small Arms Survey, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the UK Department for International Development (via the International Policy Institute, King’s College, London), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has also done humanitarian work and research in the Sahrawi refugee camps, East Timor, and Kosovo. Before coming to the Institute, Bhatia was a sessional lecturer on the causes of war in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

  4. Greece: The Tactical Implications of IED Attacks
    September 2, 2009

    Two bombs exploded Sept. 2 near the Athens Stock Exchange and provincial government buildings in northern Greece’s Thessaloniki, Reuters reported. The bombs blew up almost simultaneously and a woman was injured by flying glass in the Athens attack. Although Greek authorities have not named a suspect, the attacks are comparable to prior attacks accomplished by the left-wing militant group Revolutionary Struggle. The attacks showcase the improved logistical and bombmaking skills of the group.

    The Imminent Spread of EFPs
    April 11, 2007

    Iraqi and coalition troops involved in Operation Black Eagle, the ongoing effort to secure the city of Ad Diwaniyah, discovered several factories producing explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), U.S. Central Command said April 8. The troops also reported having uncovered caches of completed EFPs and IEDs along with explosives and other bombmaking material at various other locations across the city.

    Since the invasion of Iraq, IEDs have taken a tremendous toll on coalition and Iraqi forces. The insurgents have used a number of different IED designs, including suicide vests, vehicle-borne bombs — some of them large truck bombs packed with chlorine — and roadside bombs. Of the roadside IEDs, perhaps the most effective are those that incorporate EFPs.

    EFPs have been part of the military inventory of many countries for years. The U.S. Army, for example, added the M-2 Selectable Lightweight Attack Munition (aptly named the SLAM) to its inventory in 1990. EFP technology also is used in anti-tank guided missiles such as the TOW 2B. The EFP concept is not new on the militant front either. In 1989, the Red Army Faction used a “platter charge” (similar to an EFP) to penetrate the armored Mercedes carrying German banker Alfred Herrhausen, killing him. Militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas also have used EFP devices (like the Hamas Shawaz) against Israeli armored vehicles for several years now. In fact, the heavy use of such devices by Hezbollah in Lebanon is one of the reasons why Iran is being blamed for the appearance of EFP devices in Iraq.

    EFPs, however, have never before been deployed on the scale seen in Iraq. Clearly, they are being heavily deployed now because they are effective, economical and easy to make (many are of an improvised nature and fabricated in makeshift factories such as those discovered in Ad Diwaniyah). These three factors, along with the international aspect of the insurgency in Iraq, ensure that militants elsewhere will adopt the improvised EFP technology. In fact, considering the ease with which EFPs are constructed, Iranian involvement in regards to the Iraqi EFPs would not be required. The proliferation of this technology, though, has some serious security implications. Though this certainly will affect military forces, the most significant implications could be in the civilian security realm.

  5. The Pros and Cons of IED Electronic Countermeasures

    December 24, 2004 | 0100 GMT

    STRATFOR has received information that an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded recently near a convoy carrying officials of a Western government in Iraq. The officials escaped harm because of the quick reaction of their personal security detachment and the protection afforded them by their armored vehicles. Nevertheless, had it been possible to employ electronic countermeasures in this case, the officials might have sidestepped this sort of danger.

    The most readily available equipment designed to counter wireless command detonated IEDs works by emitting a strong electrical signal that is designed to either cause the device to prematurely activate, or “jam” the spectrum of signals that might be used to detonate such a device. Whether the IED explodes prematurely or its signal is jammed by such equipment depends on the design of the IED.

    In the latter function, the jamming signal is designed to be stronger than the bombmaker’s transmitter signal and to thereby block the bomber’s ability to communicate with his device. The output range and power of the frequency varies depending on the model, but a vehicle and/or small convoy would be fairly well protected by any single unit. To be most effective, the jammers are mounted on a vehicle within a convoy or are permanently affixed on a military base or a compound that is frequently targeted for an IED attack. As testament to their effectiveness, an electronic jammer likely saved the life of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf during a December 2003 assassination attempt.

    If the countermeasure device works as designed, certain explosive devices will detonate before a command detonation signal is given. However, security teams employing these devices have no way of knowing precisely where an IED is located, and therefore take the risk of exploding it in an area that could cause casualties. This technology cannot prematurely detonate a cell phone-triggered IED because only the particular telephone number can set off the explosives, but it can cause the device to be non-functional while in proximity to the countermeasures device.

    Many jammers can block all cell phone frequencies, but the downside to employing this technology is that it renders all cell phones in the vicinity useless — making it extremely difficult for security teams to communicate with one another and/or call in re-enforcements via cell phone. Fortunately, most jammers can be programmed so that they will not block the radio frequencies used by convoy security teams.


    By Scott Stewart

    The return to Bojinka principles is significant because it represents not only an IED attack against an aircraft but also a specific method of attack: a camouflaged, modular IED that the bomber smuggles onto an aircraft in pieces and then assembles once he or she is aboard and well past security. The original Bojinka plot used baby dolls to smuggle the main explosive charge of nitrocellulose aboard the aircraft. Once on the plane, the main charge was primed with an improvised detonator that was concealed inside a carry-on bag and then hooked into a power source and a timer (which was disguised as a wrist watch). The baby-doll device was successfully smuggled past security in a test run in December 1994 and was detonated aboard Philippine Air Flight 434.

    The main charge in the baby-doll devices, however, proved insufficient to bring down the aircraft, so the plan was amended to add a supplemental charge of liquid triacetone triperoxide (or TATP, aptly referred to as “Mother of Satan”), which was to be concealed in a bottle of contact lens solution. The plot unraveled when the bombmaker, Abdel Basit (who is frequently referred to by one of his alias names, Ramzi Yousef) accidentally started his apartment on fire while brewing the TATP.

  7. “Though it has long been associated most with the war in Iraq, the improvised explosive device (IED) has become the No. 1 killer of Western troops now driving the roads and plodding through the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Since 2004, IED fatalities for coalition military forces there have roughly doubled every year, with 2010 fatalities already having reached the 2007 total.

    Thus far, the Afghan IED has been fairly distinct from the Iraqi variety. Neither country has any shortage of loose military hardware, but conventional military ordnance like large artillery shells has long been more prevalent in Iraq, due to the country’s history of having a large standing army organized and equipped broadly along Soviet lines. The Iraqi military also stockpiled weapons in hidden caches ahead of the U.S. invasion, specifically for a protracted guerrilla campaign. The Iraqi IED also came to be characterized by a particularly deadly variety known as an explosively formed projectile (EFP), which was supplied by Iran. The EFP is constructed with concave copper disks, and the explosion shapes the copper into a molten penetrator that can punch through heavy armor.

    In Afghanistan, however, the heart of most IEDs is fertilizer, generally ammonium nitrate or potassium chloride, both of which have been readily available in the agrarian country. The former is far more powerful and has consequently been banned. Military-grade high explosives also detonate with a much higher velocity than devices based on fertilizer. And while IEDs in Iraq often used sophisticated command-detonation devices (which made U.S. jamming technology crucial as a countermeasure), IEDs in Afghanistan often use crude triggers such as pressure plates. Compared to Iraqi IEDs, Afghan devices also frequently have less metal, which makes them more difficult to find with traditional hand-held mine detectors. Indeed, modern versions of the old-fashioned mine roller, shown here mounted in front of a mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle built around a V-shaped hull designed to better withstand IEDs, are increasingly in demand in Afghanistan. K-9 units with explosive-detecting dogs also are reportedly being deployed more widely at the battalion level.”

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