Weapons: False Hopes

May 20, 2009: The Taliban believe the roadside bomb is the key to victory in Afghanistan, and a wonder weapon that will succeed where others have failed. This is unlikely, but this is what Taliban commanders are telling their subordinates. NATO and American commanders believe that Taliban suicide and roadside bomb use will increase 50 percent this year, to 5,700, compared to last year. That's 457 a month. But this is still much smaller than Iraq at its peak, where over 2,500 of these bombs were being encountered each month in 2007. As in Iraq, most of the bombs in Afghanistan are detected before they can be used, or otherwise neutralized (often with electronic jammers, or by catching and killing Taliban as they try to plant the bombs.)

In 2007, about a thousand of these bombs were built and placed in Afghanistan. That doubled to 2,000 in 2008. Last year, there have been some 2,500 Taliban attacks, about 80 percent of them roadside bombs. So far this year, over 70 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by suicide and roadside bombs. Last year, 172 foreign troops were killed by roadside and suicide bombs, along with over a thousand Afghan civilians and security personnel.

The U.S. and NATO troops have several ways to limit the effectiveness of these bombs. For example. there are 1,800 MRAPs in Afghanistan now (versus over 10,000 in Iraq), and about twice as many are needed, because these vehicles basically negate the effectiveness of roadside bombs. U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan want to have about 5,000 MRAPs. This would cut current U.S. and NATO casualty rates by 20-30 percent. NATO casualties in Afghanistan are already lower than those in Iraq, which are, in turn, only a third of the casualty rates in Vietnam and World War II.

The U.S. developed intelligence and surveillance techniques in Iraq that predicted where bombs would be placed, and found them before they could be detonated. That, plus the MRAPs for troops who do get hit by a bomb, will keep the U.S./NATO casualties down.

In Afghanistan, most of those roadside bombs were spotted and disabled before they could go off.  U.S. troops have transferred their Iraq counter-IED (Improvised Explosive Device, or roadside bomb) techniques and technology to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban found that they were not as good at this IED stuff as the Sunni Arab terrorists in Iraq were. In 2005, when there were far fewer IED/suicide bomber attacks, 130 foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan. The foreign troops are the principal Taliban target, as it's a big deal for the Taliban to "cast out the infidels (non-Moslems)." Failure has been constant. Increasing the IED/suicide attacks last year by about eight times the 2005 level has yielded 277 dead foreign troops.

Even before 2007, there were already over two thousand MRAP vehicles in use in Iraq, mainly by bomb disposal troops, and units operating in areas almost certain to have lots of roadside bombs. People in these vehicles were much less likely to be killed or injured if they encountered a roadside bomb. Thus, the thinking went, if all the troops who encountered these bombs were in a MRAP, casualties would be about 65 percent less. In 2006-7, about two-thirds of all casualties in Iraq were from roadside bombs. Thus the army and marines used these vehicles in areas most likely to have bombs, and reduced overall casualties by about a third.

MRAPs cost about five times more than armored hummers or trucks. The MRAPs are more expensive to operate, and less flexible than the hummer. MRAPs use a capsule design to protect the passengers and key vehicle components from mines and roadside bombs. The bulletproof MRAPs are built using construction techniques pioneered by South African firms, and have been a great success. The South African technology was imported into the U.S. in 1998, and has already been used in the design of vehicles used by peacekeepers in the Balkans.

One of the most common of these MRAPs are called Cougars. Basically, the Cougar is a 12 ton truck that is hardened to survive bombs and mines. The trucks cost about $730,000 each, fully equipped. MRAPs are also being supplied by other manufacturers, but their designs are very similar to the Cougar. MRAPs are more expensive to maintain and operate than the hummer, but the much lower casualty rate makes it very worthwhile. 

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