Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fighting Roadside Bombs: Part III

Rick Atkinson's third installment of his Washington Post IED series takes a further look at the agonizing effort by U.S. officials to develop effective countermeasures to the threat of roadside bombs. Here's the introduction:

On Aug. 3, 2005, the deadliest roadside bomb ever encountered by U.S. troops in Iraq detonated beneath a 26-ton armored personnel carrier, killing 14 Marines and revealing yet another American vulnerability in the struggle against improvised explosive devices.

"Huge fire and dust rose from the place of the explosion," an Iraqi witness reported from the blast site in Haditha, in Anbar province. In Baghdad and in Washington, the bleak recognition that a new species of bomb -- the underbelly, or "deep buried," IED -- could demolish any combat vehicle in the U.S. arsenal "was a light-bulb moment for sure," as a Pentagon analyst later put it.

Of the 81,000 IED attacks in Iraq over the past 4 1/2 years, few proved more devastating to morale than that "huge fire" in Haditha. At a time when coalition casualties per IED steadily declined, even as the number of bombs steadily increased, the abrupt obliteration of an entire squad -- made up mostly of reservists from Ohio -- revealed that the billions of dollars being spent on heavier armor and other "defeat the device" initiatives had clear limits.

Haditha provided a light-bulb moment for insurgents as well. During the next year, underbelly attacks just in the Marine sector of western Iraq would increase from a few each month to an average of four per day. By early summer of this year, the underbelly IED -- considered a specialty of Sunni bombers -- was killing more American troops in Iraq than all other variants of roadside bombs combined.

A bomb with 100 pounds of explosives detonating beneath an armored vehicle was equivalent to a direct hit from a six-gun artillery battery, but with an accuracy no gunner could hope to achieve. A single 155mm artillery round, which by itself can destroy a tank, typically contained 18 pounds of explosives. "That's just a damned difficult thing to defeat," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the current chief of staff for the Multinational Corps in Baghdad.

Two weeks after the Haditha killings, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who headed the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, lamented the failure of American science to vanquish the roadside bomb. "If we could prematurely detonate IEDs, we will change the whole face of the war," he said. For "a country that can put a man on the moon in 10 years, or build a nuke in 2 1/2 years of wartime effort, I don't think we're getting what we need from technology on that point."

This installment of the series - with its detailed explication of the astonishingly raw firepower of the latest roadside explosives - really brings home the utter brutality of the IED threat to U.S. forces. To put it bluntly, this piece really captures the sheer horror of the war.

Also check this next quote on "explosively formed penetrators" (IFPs), the IED projectiles supplied to the Iraqi terrorists by Iran:

By late summer 2005, the explosively formed penetrator, like the underbelly IED, had become an appallingly lethal weapon for which there was no obvious countermeasure.

Although still a small fraction of all roadside bombings, EFP attacks since spring had increased from about one per week to roughly one every other day. When fired, the semi-molten copper disks struck with such violence that casualties tended to be higher and more gruesome than in other IED attacks. "This was beyond the capability of anything in our arsenal," an Army brigadier general said. "And, by the way, you can't armor your way out of this problem."

Read the whole thing.

For my earlier entries in this series, click here and here.

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