Small Wars Journal

Weapon of Choice (Updated)

Weapon of Choice - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post, and General Montgomery Meigs, Joint IED Defeat Organzation

Additional Video Interviews Concerning IEDs - Washington Post

'The single most effective weapon against our deployed forces' - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post

It began with a bang and "a huge white blast," in the description of one witness who outlived that Saturday morning, March 29, 2003. At a U.S. Army checkpoint straddling Highway 9, just north of Najaf, four soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, part of the initial invasion of Iraq, had started to search an orange-and-white taxicab at 11:30 a.m. when more than 100 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive detonated in the trunk.

The explosion tossed the sedan 15 feet down the road, killing the soldiers, the cabdriver -- an apparent suicide bomber -- and a passerby on a bicycle. Lt. Col. Scott E. Rutter, a battalion commander who rushed to the scene from his command post half a mile away, saw in the smoking crater and broken bodies on Highway 9 "a recognition that now we were entering into an area of warfare that's going to be completely different."

Since that first fatal detonation of what is now known as an improvised explosive device, more than 81,000 IED attacks have occurred in Iraq, including 25,000 so far this year, according to U.S. military sources. The war has indeed metastasized into something "completely different," a conflict in which the roadside bomb in its many variants -- including "suicide, vehicle-borne" -- has become the signature weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan, as iconic as the machine gun in World War I or the laser-guided "smart bomb" in the Persian Gulf War of 1991...

'The IED problem is getting out of control. We've got to stop the bleeding.' - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post

By the late summer of 2002, as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington approached, an American victory in Afghanistan appeared all but assured.

A pro-Western government had convened in Kabul. Reconstruction teams fanned out through the provinces. U.S. and coalition troops hunted Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants in the mountains along the Pakistani border.

Among the few shadows on this sunny Central Asian tableau -- besides the escape of Osama bin Laden -- was the first appearance of roadside bombs triggered by radio waves.

There were not many. U.S. forces would report fewer than two dozen improvised explosive devices of all sorts in Afghanistan in 2002. But the occasional RC -- radio-controlled -- bombs were much more sophisticated than the booby traps with trip wires typically seen by American troops...

'There was a two-year learning curve... and a lot of people died in those two years' - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post

As Gen. John P. Abizaid began his second year at U.S. Central Command in July 2004, the simple solutions he had hoped would defeat improvised explosive devices in Iraq seemed further away than ever. More than 100 American soldiers had been killed by bombs in the first half of the year, and IED attacks were spiraling toward an average of 15 per day.

Eager for creative ideas, Abizaid told Centcom subordinates in August that he would accept what became known as "the 51 percent solution": If a new counter-IED gadget or technique had a better than even chance of success, it would be welcome in the theater. "Listen, if you have something that's greater than 50 percent, then get it forward," he also told Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director of the Pentagon's Joint IED Task Force. "I've got the greatest testing ground in the world in Iraq."

That testing ground was soon put to use in IED Blitz, an elaborate experiment concocted in late summer by the Pentagon's joint staff...

'You can't armor your way out of this problem' - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post

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...

'If you don't go after the network, you're never going to stop these guys. Never.' - Rick Atkinson, Washington Post

In the early spring of 2006, perhaps the most important document in Baghdad was known as the MOASS -- the Mother of All Spreadsheets-- a vast compilation of radio frequencies that insurgents used to trigger roadside bombs.

In some areas of Iraq, 70 percent of all improvised explosive devices were radio-controlled, and they caused more than half of all American combat deaths. An overworked Army intelligence officer tracked the frequencies, and an equally overworked Navy electrical engineer matched them against 14 varieties of electronic jammer used by coalition forces...

Desperate for Bad News - Michael Goldfarb, Weekly Standard

The Washington Post today prints the first in a series of stories by Rick Atkinson on the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon's response to it. The title of the piece: "'The IED problem is getting out of control. We've got to stop the bleeding.'" That quote is damning, but fortunately, it's also four years old...

It's heard to say where this series is going, and to be honest, I don't have too many complaints about the first piece. As a history of the IED problem, it seems accurate so far, ending in mid-2004 with the military's "Manhattan Project-like" approach to defeating the IED. I remain deeply skeptical of that approach, which the military pursued with little success in an attempt to find a technological rather than a tactical solution to the IED problem. There is no silver-bullet, miracle jammer, or armored vehicle that will completely eliminate the threat from the IED--the only real solution is to kill the bad guys who are building, facilitating, and emplacing these devices. But Atkinson seems to get that, quoting Admiral Macy in the introduction to the series...

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