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The War Nerd November 4, 2005
IEDs: The Lazy Man's Insurgency
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

It's time to take another look at Iraq, because there's been a big change in insurgent tactics in 2005. That's inevitable. War makes people on both sides think faster. Peacetime armies never learn anything; wartime armies learn new tricks faster than a hungry raccoon.

The big change is that the insurgents have decided to rely on IEDs rather than ambushes with shoulder-fired weapons to kill the two or three GIs per day they figure they need to wear down the US public's will to stay in the fight. And it's working, way too well.

The stats are clear: IED victims make up a bigger chunk of our casualties every month. Over the last six months, IEDs have caused 63% of US combat deaths. Last month (October 2005) was typical: out of 96 US troops killed, IEDs were responsible for 57.

Compare that with April 2004, a terrible month when we lost 140 troops. Back then the insurgents relied on RPGs and small arms. Only 19 of our 140 KIA that month-barely more than a tenth-were killed by IEDs.

The insurgents have decided to do it the easy way. As long as they can use IEDs, their low-tech standoff weapon, why should they risk close combat?

The real question is why they can get away with it. And here-well, I hate to keep saying this, but somebody needs to. The reason they can do it is because we still have NO INTEL on them. It's the biggest failure of the war, and nobody talks about it. CI warfare is about people, not hardware. We're all hardware and no intelligence, like a Tim Allen show. Makes me sick.

That makes the decision to go with IEDs a no-brainer for the insurgents. In the standard ambush, the kind we were facing a year ago, the insurgents detonated an IED under a convoy, then opened up on the stalled survivors with RPG and small arms fire. It probably made them feel good, sort of their version of shock and awe, but the rifle fire was ineffective and by concentrating their forces, the insurgents made themselves vulnerable to our air power.

The problem in any guerrilla battle is the getaway. Anybody can pull a trigger; the trick is getting your men home safe, while enemy choppers zoom through the sky and every street is full of troops and armor looking for men of military age. That's the tough part.

An IED ambush has none of those risks. Only one man needs to be on the spot-the triggerman. He detonates the IED from a car parked down a side street and drives away before the occupiers can even start their search. No risk. No casualties. Very demoralizing for the occupiers, especially since they know damn well that everybody in the neighborhood was in on the attack but they can't level the locals' shacks like they're dying to.

What makes this wave of IEDs worse is that the devices are getting more effective. Frankly I've been shocked at how good the Iraqis are with these things right from the start. I mean, after that shameful performance in GW I, did you expect these bastards to be so sneaky, patient, and smart? I knew this war was a bad idea, but even I never realized what we'd be up against.

The scariest tech development of all is that the insurgents have learned how to make shaped-charged IEDs. To understand why shaped charges are such a powerful weapon, we have to go into the incredibly cool world of explosive physics. I love this stuff. I mean, what red-blooded American boy didn't experiment with explosives? The only reason I ever opened my Chem book was to see if it mentioned TNT or dynamite in the index. (It didn't-goddamn hippie teachers.) And naturally I used the local wildlife, like toads and bees, in my experiments with the killing power of firecrackers.

What I learned was the most important point about the subject: blast alone doesn't do a good job of killing the target. A bee would wobble off unhurt after one of my 4th of July daisycutters went off right next to it.

Now before you hotheads whose hobby is making pipe bombs in the garage write me angry letters (or send me long round packages with no return address), I know a blast can kill, if it's a big enough blast. We had a really nasty example of that in August this year, when a huge IED killed 14 Marines near Haditha. From what I've read, investigation showed there was nothing special about the IED. It was just three anti-tank mines stacked in a pile-the IHOP of IEDs, I guess you could call it.

That ambush showed real clearly how important intelligence is in guerrilla warfare. The same unit that suffered the IED attack had just had six of its snipers killed in a small-arms ambush. Now you tell me how anybody can ambush six snipers unless they've completely penetrated the unit. The insurgents knew where the unit's snipers would assemble, and they knew where the vehicle would be passing. We don't know a thing about the enemy, but it's clear that he knows way too much about us.

The other problem is that the 14 Marines were riding in one of those ridiculous landing crafts the Corps uses as APCs-in Haditha, hundreds of clicks from the sea! It's called the AAV-7A1, and it looks like a giant armored dinghy. Since it was designed to ferry troops ashore, it sacrifices armor and speed and damn near everything else to an amphibious capability that has no use anymore. But that's the Corps for you. Real brave, but not always real smart.

Maybe if those guys had been in a real APC some would have survived. I can't say. If the blast is big enough, it can kill even an MBT. The Pals took out two Israeli Merkavas, the best-armored tanks in the world, with simple blast IEDs.

But most of the time, guerrillas don't have the delivery systems to depend on blast power. If they're trying to kill soft targets-i.e. people-they pack the bomb with homemade shrapnel: roofing nails, ball bearings, anything that'll shred flesh. A suicide vest tipped with nails is basically a 360-degree 12 gauge.

To kill GIs that way, you need to catch them off-guard, somewhere they feel safe. That's what happened when a Jihadi killed more than a dozen of our guys in a mess hall in Mosul while they were having lunch--minus their body armor.

In the field, US troops are a hard kill, especially because they move in armored convoys protected by choppers. And that's the real beauty of IED attacks for a guerrilla: they absolutely nullify US air power. There are literally no targets for the attack choppers. The pilots know damn well that one of those Iraqi cars driving away from the scene is carrying the guy who set off the IED, but there's no way to tell which one.

In a strange way, we're looking at a 3D war. We control the air, but the Iraqis literally control the underground, thanks to these buried IEDs. We fly, they dig.

The insurgents' first IEDs were simple. Not that there's anything wrong with simple. The weapons that have been hurting us are all simple, like the RPG. Simplicity is the guerrilla's friend.

Those early IEDs were usually just shells buried by the road, wired up to a detonator. Lots of amateurs were tinkering in their garages, or whatever Iraqis have instead of garages, playing with stuff that goes boom. And naturally lots of those guys went boom themselves.

Like I said, war teaches people fast, but some of the lessons have to be learned by the next of kin, not the handyman whose bright idea for a new type of bomb turned him into an abstract painting all over his wall.

Sometimes an insurgency has to learn its lessons several times. Take the case of pressure-triggered IEDs. These are basically standard anti-vehicle mines, with something like a bathroom scale as trigger. People and cars can pass over them unharmed, but if a really heavy (meaning armored) vehicle rolls over that scale, the bomb goes off. (Trucks are a problem. Some trucks weigh as much as an APC.) The best part is that you don't even need a triggerman to set it off. You can all be off at the hookah parlor polishing up your alibis when it goes off.

The insurgents in Baqouba used pressure bombs in 2003, but they usually failed to go off. Their bombmakers didn't have the technique yet.

Thanks to info-sharing, the internet gives an insurgency, they're back at it, with better wiring diagrams. A week ago (Oct. 24 '05), a pressure bomb shredded a Humvee in Baqouba, tearing four GIs legs to pieces.

The first IEDs were mostly mortar rounds that failed against our armor. So the insurgents went to big 155mm rounds. That's a big, big shell and when you trigger it at the right moment, it's going to kill almost anything but an M1.

The M1 is a great tank, so it's kind of scary to read the stats on how many of them the insurgents have managed to knock out. As usual, the invasion was the easy part and the occupation was when things got lethal. We only lost 18 M1s in the conventional fighting, but the guerrillas have since managed to disable 80. Now most of those are track damage, but that's enough to put a tank out of action.

The good news is that the M1 has lived up to its rep for crew protection. The Army's Armor Center says only five crew have died in IED attacks on M1s. (Ten other M1 crew have been killed, mostly by sniper fire, riding in open hatches.)

So if you're an insurgent bomb-maker, your goal is to find a way to kill M1s. Not just knock a tread off, but destroy it and kill the crew. And that's where the shaped-charge IED comes in. Shaped charges were developed for tank killing, used in MBT anti-armor rounds and antitank weapons. Their warheads are basically thick cups of soft metal. Metals with low melting points, usually copper. The bomb-maker's job is to make sure as much of the force of the blast is channeled to the copper cone as possible. So sometimes he'll put several 155mm shells beneath the copper, or pack a whole lot of TNT under it.

When the IED detonates, this copper cup turns into a shaft of superheated metal that can zip right through any armor, even an M1's. That's what they tell me, and I have to believe it.

It's the kind of weird science that used to frustrate me in Physics, the sort of info you just have to take on faith. I can't help wondering if they're kidding us civvies about it all. I don't get why a soft metal like copper can penetrate Chobham armor, which can defeat almost any warhead around.

Apparently the copper isn't even actually molten. It ejects as a solid; it just "behaves like molten metal." I'm sure the insurgent Home Improvement tinkerers don't understand the science involved any more than I do. They just hear that it works and try it out.

The US countermeasures have been pretty lame so far. Convoys travel with jammers that make it harder to detonate the IED by cell phone or garage door opener-Nokia and Genie sales are going to drop in the Sunni Triangle. But like I said, low-tech is the guerrilla's friend. These days they've gone back to wires, and I hear some are even using string. You can't jam a string.

Beyond that, Bush policy is to blame Iran, or Syria, or Satan or whoever.

Iran? Maybe. Syria? No way. Syria's scared to death, ready to do anything to make Uncle Sam happy. And if it is Iran, what can we do about it? There are still a few neocons so totally out of their little gourds they want us to invade Iran. I have to wonder if they're agents of Dr Evil, programmed to destroy America. Because invading Iran would do it, it'd end us once and for all.

This blame stuff is a sign of frustration. Nobody knows how to stop IEDs, even with all the Popular Mechanics geeks sending in their garage-tech brainstorms. That's because-damn, how many times do I have to repeat it?-guerrilla war has no technical solution. Or even military solution. The only effective CI techniques are torture, reprisal and, ultimately, genocide.

My guess is that genocide will come back one day. That was how the Ancients dealt with rebellious towns: wiped 'em out. One of these days some first-world country is going to get impatient and a problem child like the Sunni Triangle will be a big, radioactive ghost town.

If we don't do it, the Kurds may end up doing it the old-fashioned way they learned from the Turks: one bullet, one village at a time. It's been done before--seen any Armenians up there lately? Probably not, but most of "Kurdistan" used to be "Armenia." A few of the Armenians made it to Fresno, but the rest are buried up there.

We're talking about Mesopotamia here, the place where war was invented. Hundreds of peoples have been wiped out forever in those parts. All these Holocaust lobbyists get furious if anybody says Jews aren't the only tribe to get genocided, but that's just politics-"Our genocide is better than your genocide!"

The fact is, genocide is, historically, the most common result when one tribe runs into another. And something tells me the next big wipeout will happen right there in Central Iraq.

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Gary Brecher
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