Weapons: The False Hope


August 19, 2008:Islamic terrorists persist in using roadside bombs (or IED, improvised explosive device) against U.S. troops, even though it's proved to be an expensive, dangerous and largely ineffective weapon against Western troops. For example, there is one Western casualty for every eight IEDs encountered in Iraq. Most IEDs encountered are destroyed or disabled before they can hurt anyone. Many more are never encountered, meaning that the enemy has to build, place and attempt to detonate over ten IEDs for every Western soldier they kill or wound (and most IED casualties are wounded). In Iraq alone, the enemy employed over 200,000 IEDs. While that accounted for over half of U.S. casualties, the overall American casualty rate was about a third of what it was in Vietnam (or World War II, for that matter). The Islamic terrorists lost in Iraq, but not so much because they used so many IEDs, but because the roadside bombs were the best way to hurt American troops, without taking so many casualties themselves.

Because the IEDhas proved to be the most successful weapon usedby Iraqi terrorists, the media tended toreport it as some kind of newish super weapon. However, IEDs have been around for several generations. The only reason they are getting so much ink in Iraq is because the terrorists are unable to inflict many casualties on American troops any other way. The Arab terrorists in Iraq are not very effective. While the overall casualty rate was 10:1 in favor of the Americans, it was much less when using IEDs, than when trying to fight the U.S. troops head on. For the Iraqi terrorists, IEDs were the best of a bad situation. But it was a losing situation nonetheless.

The Vietnamese terrorists (the Viet Cong) were much more formidable opponents. Even so, the Viet Cong were largely destroyed as a force during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and were eliminated as a force in the Vietnam war shortly thereafter. The North Vietnamese army then became the major enemy force, and eventually conquered South Vietnam with a conventional invasion, coming across the border with tanks and artillery, in 1975. That was there second attempt, the one in 1972 was defeated. The Vietnam war involved irregulars and terrorists, but was finally won by a conventional operation. That particular aspect of the Vietnam war is generally forgotten, but there it is. In Iraq, the enemy never got out of the guerilla terrorist phase, and were defeated there.

IEDs were used in Vietnam, but caused (with mines, and booby traps in general) only 13 percent of the casualties, compared to over 60 percent in Iraq. The reason for this, is one that few journalists want to discuss openly. But historians can tell you; Arabs are lousy fighters. Hasn't always been this way, but for the last century or so, it has. This has more to do with poor leadership, and a culture that simply does not encourage those traits that are needed to produce a superior soldier. In a word, the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas were better, and more deadly, fighters. Contributing factors in less effective enemy performance in Iraq include better training and equipment for American and Coalition troops. But most of the reason for the historically low casualty rates in Iraq have to do with Iraqis who don't know how to fight effectively.

IEDs are another matter. They are mainly a matter of technology, planning and careful preparation for the attack. These are all things Iraqi Sunni Arabs are good at. You also suffer a lot fewer casualties by using IEDs, so the weapon is good for the morale of the users. From 2002-2006, the IED has been used more and more in Iraq. While only 5,607 IEDs were placed in 2004, there were 10,953 encountered in 2005. But American troops responded to the threat. In 2004, about a quarter of IEDs actually went off and hurt someone. In 2005, that rate declined to ten percent, and kept falling. This has been very frustrating for the terrorists and nerve wracking for the American troops on the receiving end. While billions of dollars has been put into developing new devices to counter IEDs, the best defensive tool is still alert troops, who have been briefed on the latest intel about what kind of IEDs are being planted.

Technology, in the form of electronic jammers (to interfere with detonation), UAVs (to fly over routes looking for IEDs, or people planting them) and intel analysis (to identify IED characteristics, and that of their makers) have contributed a lot, to nullifying most IEDs. But in the end, it's the troops in the vehicles subject to attack who are the last, and often most effective, line of defense. Up through 2007, IED use increased enormously, but American casualtiesremained the same.

IEDs are the weapon of a weak opponent. They kill many of your own people, and that eventually destroys support from the people the terrorists say they are fighting for. Unless IEDs can turn things around for the users, they are self-defeating. This isn't sexy, and doesn't make for exciting journalism, but there it is.

In Afghanistan, there is growing use of IEDs, but nothing like what was seen in Iraq. At the rate they are being encountered now, there will be about a thousand IEDs used in Afghanistan this year. Actually, use peaked in the Spring, at about 200 a month. Moreover, the Afghan IEDs are rather more crude than the ones found in Iraq. Part of that is due to the lack of skilled personnel for building, placing and detonating them. Actually, very few of the Afghan IEDs are triggered by a wireless device. That's because of the growing effectiveness of American jammers. Instead, many are detonated via a wire connection, or are planted in a dirt road and act as an anti-vehicle mine. Some actually are anti-vehicle mines, left over from the war with the Russians two decades ago. But most are homemade anti-vehicle mines. These have one major shortcoming, and that is their inability to tell Western troops from civilians, or even Taliban or al Qaeda. As a result, the casualty rate in Afghanistan is even lower than it was in Iraq. In both places, IEDs were a losers weapon.

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