IEDs in Iraq

This article about the arms race between the U.S. military and jihadi Improvised Explosive Device (IED) makers in Iraq illustrates that more technology isn't always an effective security solution:

Insurgents have deftly leveraged consumer electronics technology to build explosive devices that are simple, cheap and deadly: Almost anything that can flip a switch at a distance can detonate a bomb. In the past five years, bombmakers have developed six principal detonation triggers -- pressure plates, cellphones, command wire, low-power radio-controlled, high-power radio-controlled and passive infrared -- that have prompted dozens of U.S. technical antidotes, some successful and some not.

[...]

The IED struggle has become a test of national agility for a lumbering military-industrial complex fashioned during the Cold War to confront an even more lumbering Soviet system. "If we ever want to kneecap al-Qaeda, just get them to adopt our procurement system. It will bring them to their knees within a week," a former Pentagon official said.

[...]

Or, as an officer writing in Marine Corps Gazette recently put it, "The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons."

EDITED TO ADD (10/8): That was the introduction. It's a four-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Posted on October 2, 2007 at 4:23 PM • 34 Comments

Comments

Thomas PaineOctober 2, 2007 4:34 PM

> If we ever want to kneecap al-Qaeda,
... just give the people good, responsive, competent government. Al Qaeda would no longer have a market.

SwashbucklerOctober 2, 2007 5:10 PM

"The day we lose a war it will be to guys with spears and loincloths, because they're not tied to technology. And we're kind of close to being there."

Similar thing happened in Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force and Navy were overly reliant on missiles for air-to-air combat. They had to add cannons, first in the field, later as standard equipment. The missiles just weren't reliable enough.

JoeMOctober 2, 2007 5:11 PM

It's interesting that optical triggering via slave-flash tech (as used by the IRA in their attacks on Heathrow in the early 90's - http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/00267.pdf ) is not being used given the fact that almost every possible other remote trigger is being used.. I wonder if that is because it is now deemed to be too primitive (hey progress!) or too risky (also progress ?). It's certainly simple, reliable, fairly cheap and has more than enough range for the task.

JessOctober 2, 2007 5:28 PM

@Thomas Paine: "... just give the people good, responsive, competent government. Al Qaeda would no longer have a market."

Easier said than done. Some people even think that's what we're trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. Unfortunately we can't give another people that sort of thing any more than we can give them a brain, a heart, or courage. Perhaps the various empires of the ancient world provided good, responsive, competent government, but I suspect they just ruthlessly enforced whatever system they imported from the rest of the empire. Also, I'm pretty sure there were at least as many ungoverned tribes in the Hindu Kush then as there are now.

JOctober 2, 2007 5:30 PM

Off on a tangent here, but this leads me to ask: are the Iraqi insurgents actually related to al-Qaeda? This is implied in the article, but is not really clear to me (I simply do not know enough about the situation in Iraq).

AMoeOctober 2, 2007 5:33 PM

@JoeM

This kind of triggering would be great for the IRA, where there were fewer indiscriminant trigger-fingers.

In Iraq, this would just get the building used by the bomber hosed down with machine-guns and grenades then targeted for an artillery strike. Not so good for the Iraqi environment, I think.

I am also betting that "materials at hand" enters into the equation a bit. I doubt that there is a large market for professional photographer equipment amongst Iraqis, but cell-phones, radios, and other improvised electronics components are ubiquitous.

For the IRA, slave-photo equipment would be relatively cheap, but I doubt the local price and availability is like that in Iraq.

RoyOctober 2, 2007 5:36 PM

The insurgency has, according to a Washington Post article, "650,000 tons and perhaps more than 1 million tons of explosives" with which to make IEDs, so there is a real incentive to use what's readily available.

One class of high-tech countermeasures attempts to trigger bombs prematurely, but all of them can be defeated by a simple safety switch, not arming the bomb until detonation is wanted.

GrahameOctober 2, 2007 5:43 PM

@J

They claim philosophical alignment and common organisational motives and infrastructure. It's not exactly clear how close they actually are.

StratFor (http://www.stratfor.com) has provided some useful analysis in this regard. (sign up for the free newsletters)

UNTEROctober 2, 2007 6:01 PM

@J & Grahame:

Which insurgents? Do you mean the Ba'athist insurgents? Or AQ in Iraq? Or Moqtada Al Sadr's shiite militias? Or the general clusterf*ck in southern Iraq? Or the fighting between Yezidis and Muslims in Kurdistan?

On some days, we call insurgents Shiite groups trained by Iranians - on others we call Sunni fundamentalist groups. For a while, the "dead-enders" were insurgents, but today they are our allies.

Who are these "insurgents" you speak of?

@Bruce: "more technology isn't always an effective security solution". Yeah, when the problem isn't one of technology in the first place. Unless we can make the technological difference of the scale between the Inca and the Spanish, a relative handful of soldiers can not impose their will on a people; technology here is simply the limiting case. But I doubt that we are 6,000 years more technologically advanced than the Iraqis, despite our delusions of grandeur.

UNTEROctober 2, 2007 6:15 PM

"Or, as an officer writing in Marine Corps Gazette recently put it, "The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons."

This is why we're getting killed - our own self-destructive arrogance. The Iraqi's are not the Flintstones. The guys organizing the insurgencies (the competing militias) are probably all university or equivalent educated - a number probably even have US graduate degrees. Engineers, MDs and PhD's (on top of the oh-so-ever-overeducated clerics) are fighting us, using uneducated foot-soldiers. But how is that different from any other country?

Poor != Ignorant. Expensive != Technologically Sophisticated.

VTBOctober 2, 2007 6:20 PM

Two comments:

[quote]just give the people good, responsive, competent government.[/quote]

???? We haven't even managed it in this relatively stable society, as any number of incidents over the past few years demonstrate.

Two:

"A weapon is a device for changing your enemy's mind."

By that canon, IEDs are proving a lot more effective than "shock and awe."

KevinOctober 2, 2007 6:37 PM

@Unter

Yeah, they are the flintstones. When I crossed the Kuwaiti border, I felt like I was traveling back in time 2000 years. They burn animal dung for heat. I worked with a translator to print up some basic rules for standing post, like "don't leave your weapon lying around", and he told me, "it's sort of a waste, because most of these soldiers can't read".

I know it's trendy to make parellels between the fact that the US military isn't composed of yuppie liberals with the difference between the foot soldier and the leadership in third world hellholes, but there is not a parallel. The average officer is not massively better educated than the average enlisted man in the US military, and the socio economic background is an even smaller disparity.

That said, we're blowing an absurd amount of money on technology which serves no purpose. The latest high tech gadget is worthless if it isn't used, or if you don't have resources to train the people to use it, or if it isn't reliable. I've heard good things about our electronic counter-measures though.

UNTEROctober 2, 2007 7:03 PM

@Kevin,

And some Indian burn animal dung for heat. I guess that means we shouldn't worry about Indians contracting out all our software...

It's not the illiterate guys burning the dung that are designing new IEDs, and IBM's outsourcing division head in New Delhi is not an illiterate bare-foot dirt farmer. Just as arrogant as Europeans who judge Americans by the poorest folks in West Virginia.

"I know it's trendy to make parallels between the fact that the US military isn't composed of yuppie liberals with the difference between the foot soldier and the leadership in third world hellholes." Projecting a little?

I said "But how is that different from any other country?" Any other country includes Russia, China, Mexico, Nigeria, the Roman Empire and the British Empire. The magnitude of the difference varies from time and place, but at the end of the day you always have guys who have the equivalent of a Ph.D giving directions to guys who are well lower down on the totem pole. Of course. Inevitably. The smaller the difference, the more successful the state in the long term; and in the short term, it's the reverse.

Give us time. We've got the leadership of third-world hell-holes. They just haven't had time yet to drag the rest of us with them, but they really are working as hard as they can to bring us to that shining day.

Jarrod FratesOctober 2, 2007 9:27 PM

@Swashbuckler:

"The U.S. Air Force and Navy were overly reliant on missiles for air-to-air combat. They had to add cannons, first in the field, later as standard equipment. The missiles just weren't reliable enough."

The missiles were reliable enough, as they were used quite often and rang up a good portion of the kills. However, they failed to take into account the prevalence of close-air combat. You just can't fire off a missile when you're much less than a mile from your target, because you risk catching the shrapnel from your own missile's detonation. It wasn't a matter of a problem with the technology so much as a misunderstanding of the scope of the problem of air-to-air combat.

averrosOctober 3, 2007 12:46 AM

You can't "give" people government. What form of government they have is merely a reflection of their superstitions and irrational beliefs.

It takes quite a lot more than armed invasion to change people's minds.

Especially when they clearly see that invaders are just as irrational in their belief into Government Almighty.

Joe BuckOctober 3, 2007 1:49 AM

UNTER: the Spanish beat the Incas not with technology, but with biological warfare: smallpox and other diseases sickened the Inca army, and eventually killed about 90% of it. In addition, the Spanish played divide-and-conquer, making allies of subject peoples who were happy to help beat the Incas and the Aztecs.

Their guns were pretty crappy, and wouldn't have been enough alone, considering the small numbers.

HenOctober 3, 2007 5:36 AM

@Joe Buck
"UNTER: the Spanish beat the Incas not with technology, but with biological warfare: smallpox and other diseases sickened the Inca army, and eventually killed about 90% of it. In addition, the Spanish played divide-and-conquer, making allies of subject peoples who were happy to help beat the Incas and the Aztecs."

That's true, of course. But, as far as I know, it was also very important factor that Incas and Aztecs have never seen a horse and didn't know the firearms.

Dom De VittoOctober 3, 2007 5:45 AM

@Swashbuckler/Jarrod

Wasn't missiles or prevalence of close-air combat, it was a total misunderstanding of enemy tactics, air *and* ground, and an inability to evolve (continuously) to counter it.
That's why the US lost.

Spot any parallels here....?

Dom

LeoNerdOctober 3, 2007 6:01 AM

@UNTER

> But I doubt that we are 6,000 years more technologically advanced than the Iraqis, despite our delusions of grandeur.

And moreover, in our international trade arrangements, where most people from most countries can, with sufficient money, buy almost anything from any other country; we can barely claim 6000 minutes of technology difference, let alone years.

bobOctober 3, 2007 6:59 AM

1) I just cant WAIT until the TSA figures out that a keychain car-remote fob could be a detonator as well.

2) The advantage of "left of the boom" efforts are that they are "broad-spectrum" countermeasures that work regardless of the technology employed. A "silver bullet" that stopped all IEDs period would only redirect the same people to other tools to accomplish the same mission.

3) Next time see if you can find an article slanted a little more to the left - then it would be completely horizontal; that one paragraph on page three (admitting that things are improving and attacks are down for the last 3 straight months) gives it a 4% slope...

AnonymousOctober 3, 2007 7:53 AM

> The guys organizing the insurgencies (the competing militias)
> are probably all university or equivalent educated - a number
> probably even have US graduate degrees.

Nice. So you're saying that USian university degrees are better than non-USian university degrees?
An interesting standpoint for someone who also said:

> This is why we're getting killed - our own self-destructive arrogance.

True.

Chris SOctober 3, 2007 9:22 AM

@Thomas Paine: "just give the people good, responsive, competent overnment. Al Qaeda would no longer have a market."

...and the time and experience to trust it enough to prefer it to the alternative.

Although the Cyprus situation is by no means resolved, it raises the possibility that the best solution may involve using external force to maintain stability for at least a human generation, so that more people are familiar with - and want - a peaceful solution, even to the extent of accepting formerly unacceptable compromise.

Cyprus is at 33 years and counting.

Matt from CTOctober 3, 2007 9:56 AM

>But, as far as I know, it was also very
>important factor that Incas and Aztecs
>have never seen a horse and didn't
>know the firearms.

That's pyschological, not technical.

Fear of the unknown can be powerful behind poor leadership and/or bureaucratic regulations.

Hmm, someone walks into an airport in Boston wearing a blinky, electronic device.

Since it was "unknown," fear tripped a bureaucratic response of procedures that said to take the person down at gunpoint.

While I'm not up-to-date on the Central American histories, in North America the arrival of diseases ahead of the majority of immigration from Europe had profound effects.

Prior to First Contact, North America probably had > 20,000,000 natives. By the time of Jamestown and Plymouth, around 1/10th that number.

In an environment were you lose 90% of your population, and tribes you used to trade with have disappeared...how can the appearance of strange looking men cause a reaction other then more fear?

jeffOctober 3, 2007 10:12 AM

>Speaking of Ph.D. degrees, Bruce Schneier doesn't have one.

He doesn't need one. He's Bruce $%&@in' Schneier, dammit!

PeterOctober 3, 2007 10:26 AM

@J:
The political situation in the US is to pretend that anyone opposed to the US is a member of AlQeda. The purpose of this is to short-circuit logical thought on the problem.

As for supplying the insurgency; when "we" invaded in 2003, we left the ammo dumps in Iraq unguarded for over 2 weeks (but the Oil Ministry was taken and guarded as soon as troops reached Bagdad). More than 250,000 tons of ammo and weapons were looted from the unguarded dumps during those 2 weeks. At 2005 levels of insurgency, that is about 200 years of IEDs, mortars and guns.

Machine shops in Bagdad have been raided as they were stamping out the copper discs used to make the shaped projectiles used in explosively formed penetrators. Iran is being blamed for supplying these, while in reality, any machine shop in the world can make them, and as the raids in fall 2006 showed, actually *do* make inside Iraq.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explosively_formed_penetrator

If Iran actually *were* supplying Iraqi insurgents, then they would take a page from the US aid to the mujahadin (the folks who ended up becoming the taliban) and start supplying anti-aircraft missiles.

Kadin2048October 3, 2007 11:44 AM

It doesn't make sense for the Iranians to send SAMs; they would be too easily traceable. They're not stupid. Their leadership must realize that there are people in the U.S. just looking for an excuse to "liberate" their country (aka reduce it to a smoking charnel house). If you were going to support the insurgency next door, you don't do it by sending a lot of sophisticated stuff that's going to lead the enemy back to your door.

You'd do it by supplying exactly the sort of stuff that could be made anywhere, so that you could preserve your plausible deniability.

SunTzuBushOctober 3, 2007 12:08 PM

>
…illustrates that more technology isn't always an effective security solution

In warfare, you have 2 options:
1. Employ better weapons.
2. Send more soldiers…

wkwillisOctober 3, 2007 9:11 PM

I'm an inventor. The Iraqis haven't even BEGUN to figure out variations on remote detonation tricks.
Give them 20 years and they'll learn.
But not from me.

Dan2October 4, 2007 11:39 AM

A little late to the discussion, but stories like this always remind me of Arthur C. Clarke's short "Superiority".

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