Combating IEDs, losing battle

As in Iraq where it became the most effective weapon of insurgents, the IED, or improvised explosive device, has raised the casualty count significantly for U.S. forces in Afghanistan the past two years.

A surge in ground forces and a change of strategy, to have more U.S. troops dismount from vehicles more to mix with the Afghan populace, has produced a more target-rich environment for homemade bombs.

In 2008, IEDs killed 68 American service members in Afghanistan. The number rose to 168 in 2009 and to 268 last year, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. The number IED wounded nearly tripled to 3,371 in Afghanistan last year, up from 1,211 in 2009 and 270 in 2008.

The Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), with its $2.8 billion annual budget, is responsible for countering the IED threat. Mitchell Howell, deputy director of JIEDDO for rapid acquisition and technology, said in a phone interview that the organization has made steady progress against IEDs even though no “silver bullet solution” has been found.

He said the enemy adjusts tactics and techniques swiftly in response to whatever fresh countermeasures the U.S. military adopts.

Howell said when coalition forces devise a solution to one IED technology, “within weeks if not days, or sometimes hours, the bad guys change the manner in which they deploy” IEDs, Howell said. “They are always watching what we do, and they change a bit more frequently than what our traditional acquisition system is designed to accommodate.”

Nevertheless, Howell said, JIEDDO’s combination of operations — training the force, uncovering and attacking IED networks, and developing tactics and technologies to defeat devices — has saved lives and steadily is making deployment of IEDs a riskier business for enemies.

“You can judge that by the methods insurgents tend to shift to,” Howell said. “We are seeing a shift back towards suicide-borne IED folks because we have limited their ability to explode IEDs on the roads in some of the villages.”

Suicide attacks are targeted thus more effective, Howell said. “But we are working very hard to be able to discern the personnel and vehicle borne IEDs at a distance, well before they get into critical areas.”

In an agrarian economy like Afghanistan, fertilizer and other bomb-making chemicals are plentiful. Because almost every IED uses electrical blasting caps to detonate, one “silver bullet solution” would be the ability to “pre-detonate everything,” Howell said. But most IEDs are buried, making pre-detonation difficult.

On average, 1,300 to 1,500 IED attacks occur per month in Afghanistan. Twenty percent of them are effective, meaning they kill or wound coalition forces. Howell, a retired Army infantry officer, said the Taliban may be a largely illiterate “but they are certainly not dumb.”

They make swift and simple innovations to respond to IED countermeasures. Their first IEDs, for example, used radio frequencies to detonate. U.S. forces responded with electronics that created signal-jamming bubbles around vehicles. So IED makers began using “victim-operated” detonation switches that vehicles would run over.

Troops then began deploying rollers on the front of vehicles to pre-detonate IEDs, and the enemy shifted to using buried command wires and hidden spotters to trigger bombs by sight as the troops passed.

“What we want to do is get inside the enemy’s decision cycle, to take away the initiative. We are having an impact,” Howell said. Since June, he said, the effectiveness of IEDs in Afghanistan, as measured by incidents producing casualties, has fallen 9 percent.