Monday, October 01, 2007

Fighting Roadside Bombs

Rick Atkinson at the Washington Post has a series up this week on how the U.S. military is meeting the challenge of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the current generation of warfare.

The first installment ran Sunday under the title, "
The IED problem is getting out of control. We've got to stop the bleeding." Here's an excerpt with some background to the issue, which picks up after Atkinson's discussion of Iraq's unsecured ammunition depots, the basic supply source for the insurgency's bombing campaign:

In the summer of 2003, pilfered explosives appeared in growing numbers of IEDs. Main Supply Route Tampa, the main road for military convoys driving between Baghdad and Kuwait, became a common target. Three artillery shells wired to a timer west of Taji, discovered on July 29, reportedly made up the first confirmed delay bomb. Others were soon found using egg timers or Chinese washing-machine timers.

Radio-controlled triggers tended to be simple and low-power, using car key fobs or wireless doorbell buzzers -- Qusun was the most common brand -- with a range of 200 meters or less. Radio controls from toy cars beamed signals to a small electrical motor attached to a bomb detonator; turning the toy's front wheels completed the circuit and triggered the explosion.

U.S. troops dubbed the crude devices "bang-bang" because spurious signals could cause premature detonations, sometimes killing the emplacer. Bombers soon learned to install safety switches in the contraptions, and to use better radio links.

Camouflage remained simple, with bombs tucked in roadkill or behind highway guardrails. (Soldiers soon ripped out hundreds of miles of guardrail.) Emplacers often used the same "blow hole" repeatedly, returning to familiar roadside "hot spots" again and again. But early in the insurgency, before U.S. troops were better trained, only about one bomb in 10 was found and neutralized, according to an Army colonel.

Coalition forces tended to concentrate at large FOBs -- forward operating bases -- with few entry roads. "Insurgents seized the initiative on these common routes," according to a 2007 account of the counter-IED effort by Col. William G. Adamson. "The vast majority of IED attacks occurred within a short distance of the FOBs."

Each week, the cat-and-mouse game expanded. When coalition convoys routinely began stopping 300 yards from a suspected IED, insurgents planted easily spotted hoax bombs to halt traffic, then detonated explosives that had been hidden where a convoy would most likely pull over.

By the early fall of 2003, IED attacks had reached 100 a month, according to a House Armed Services Committee document. Most were a nuisance; some proved stunning and murderous. A large explosion along a roadbed near Balad in October of that year flung a 70-ton M1A2 Abrams tank down an embankment, shearing off the turret and killing two crewmen. Even more horrifying was a truck bomb at 4:45 p.m. on Aug. 19 that demolished the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing the U.N. special representative and 22 others.

Day by day, as Adamson would write, "the concept of a front, or line of battle, vanished" in Iraq, giving way to "360-degree warfare."

The article is worth reading in its entirety.

One of the most important conclusions to be drawn here is how gravely serious a threat the IED crisis poses for U.S. forces and overall military priorities. There's a massive amount of unsecured ordnance in Iraq, and roadside bombs have become far and away the most significant source of American casualties. High-level Defense Department strategic planning to fight the IED scourge is discussed in terms of scale relative to the Manhattan Project. Indeed, elimination of the IED threat is now top national security policy, and par with the extermination of Osama bin Laden.

I have a couple of quick thoughts about the piece. My first consideration is how the IED crisis affects U.S. planning on Iranian counterproliferation. The article notes, for example, that perhaps as much as 1 million tons of explosives in Iraq were thought to be unsecured in 2003, a situation arising out of the U.S. military's constraints in providing comprehensive post-conflict stablity in Iraq after initial combat.

As grave a potential situation as those numbers reveal, the issue of unsecured munitions should not be construed as precluding any Iranian complicity in the number and serverity of recent IED attack on American forces. Unfortunately,
at least one hard-left blog has cited Atkinson's piece as evidence that the administration is trumping up evidence against Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq - the purpose of such assertions being to delegitimize a U.S. military response to Iran's campaign of killing U.S. forces in Iraq. Yet, as I noted yesterday, the U.S. military has been gathering increasing evidence of an Iranian arms pipeline to Iraq, and American forces have begun to step up countermobilization activities along the Iraq-Iran border.

A second aspect to the roadside bomb threat relates to the broader international theory of America's global military preponderance. The U.S. currently enjoy strategic unipolarity in the international realm. The implication of this, as Barry Posen pointed out in in his 2003 article, "
Command of the Commons," is that in the air, land, and sea, the U.S. currently faces no immediate challenges to its national security from any potential great power adversary in world politics.

Posen's research shows, however, that U.S. primacy is substantially compromised by peripheral adversaries who wage wars against the U.S. in the "contested zones":

The closer U.S. military forces get to enemy-held territory, the more competitive the enemy will be. This arises from a combination of political, physical, and technological facts. These facts combine to create a contested zone—arenas of conventional combat where weak adversaries have a good chance of doing real damage to U.S. forces. The Iranians, the Serbs, the Somalis, and the still unidentified hard cases encountered in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan have demonstrated that it is possible to fight the U.S. military. Only the Somalis can claim anything like a victory, but the others have imposed costs, preserved at least some of their forces, and often lived to tell the tale—to one another. These countries or entities have been small, resource poor, and often militarily “backward.” They offer cautionary tales. The success of the 2003 U.S. campaign against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq should not blind observers to the inherent difficulty of fighting in contested zones.
Posen's piece appeared four years ago, at the time of the earliest stage of Iraq's insurgency. Yet as we now know, the Iraq war clearly constitutes a "hard case" of successful asymmetrical warfare, waged by an impacable array of terrorist forces - backed by both state and non-state actors - determined to fight a ruthless campaign of intimidation, insecurity, and murder, the ultimate object of which is undermine support for the Iraqi government, and bring about a civil war victory of nihilist darkness.

The stakes in fighting the threat of roadside bombs are great, not just for Iraq, but for the future of American military leadership and global order.

Stayed tuned for forthcoming posts on Atkinson's series on the IED challenge.

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