Support: The Passing Lane


June 14, 2011: After eight years of exposure to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, mainly roadside bombs), the U.S. Army has developed an impressive array of training techniques to prepare troops for this weapon, and enable them to cope with it. The most obvious methods consist of computer simulations, much like video games, that enable troops to learn the techniques and practice. But the final phase of training is conducted on special "training lanes." This is a stretch of road containing typical (in appearance) IEDs and ambushes. Trainees drive vehicles they normally use (trucks for support troops, armored vehicles for combat troops) and apply what they learned on the computer simulations. This consists of how to spot IEDs and deal with them. This procedures for reporting IEDs, going around them, calling them in so engineers can dispose of them, or dealing with the devices themselves. There are different training scenarios for support troops, combat units and engineers. There are now 39 of these training lanes, 37 in U.S. bases, two in Germany and one in South Korea.

But there's more. Army intelligence has developed methods for predicting which routes will have more IEDs (and warning troops using those roads) and analyzing new types of IEDs and getting that information out to the troops quickly. The intel aspect of dealing with IEDs is often ignored, which is how the intel people prefer it. It's best that the enemy not know certain things.

IEDs quickly became the primary terrorist weapon in Iraq, and eventually in Afghanistan. Over 100,000 IEDs have been used so far, mostly against U.S. troops. IEDs have killed nearly 3,000 U.S. troops so far. That's about one American killed for every 35 IEDs used. Not particularly impressive, but as the only effective weapon the Iraqi and Afghan terrorists have, they have gotten behind the tactic in a big way.

IED use started off slow, with only about 3,000 used in the first year after Saddam was overthrown. Over 80 percent of IEDs were used in Iraq. This was because 600,000 tons of Saddams' munitions that were scattered all over the country in early 2003, and these provided ample material for making these bombs. The most exposed U.S. troops are those moving supplies, and other stuff, around the country. There were 300-400 convoy operations a day (in 2007) in Iraq, most of them being supply runs. This involved over 3,000 vehicles, and some 6,000 troops. Casualties from attacks on convoys were relatively low, although soldiers who drove along dangerous routes regularly had about a five percent chance of getting killed or wounded during a 12 month tour. That's a very high casualty rate for non-combat troops.

The use of IEDs gave Saddam's experienced and well trained military and security personnel a chance to show off their skills. But the most effective countermeasures were equally clever American troops using whatever high, and low, tech solutions they could come up with. Again, new technology got the most media attention, but when you went into the details of why over 90 percent of IEDs are spotted and disabled, you found that it was brains, not gadgets, that was mainly responsible.

IEDs have been around for several generations. The only reason they got so much ink in Iraq was because the terrorists were unable to inflict many casualties on American troops any other way. The Sunni Arab fighters in Iraq were, historically, a pretty inept and pathetic bunch. This can be seen in the amazingly low casualty rate of American troops. By comparison, an American soldier serving in Vietnam was over twice as likely to be killed or wounded.

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. They got better results without having to fall back on IEDs. IEDs are mainly a matter of technology, planning and careful preparation for the attack. These are all things Iraqis were good at. You also suffer a lot fewer casualties by using IEDs, so the weapon is good for the morale of the users.

After 2003, IED use grew quickly. While only 5,607 IEDs were placed in 2004, there were 10,953 encountered in 2005 and over 40,000 in 2006. 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.

The basic areas for IEDs remain intersections and roundabouts, on and under bridges and overpasses, on verges and breaks in the median strips, defiles, and any place where the IED planner believes the bomb will not be noticed by approaching Americans. In addition, IEDs are often planted in a daisy-chain fashion. Another tactic is using some gunmen to draw U.S. troops towards an IED. These "kill zones" often employ secondary IEDs, that are detonated after the initial devices have exploded.

In Afghanistan, most IEDs were used on rural, unpaved, roads. But American troops quickly adapted their Iraqi techniques to the new conditions. Troops are most vulnerable to IEDs when they are on combat operations. The supply and transportation troops had their regular routes (especially the MSR, or Main Supply Route highways), very well covered in Iraq. IEDs rarely get a chance to go off, or even get planted, on those roads. But for rural areas in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are more opportunities to place an IED that won't be discovered, and will get a chance to kill and wound Americans. In Afghanistan, there were more secondary routes, going out into the country. It was more difficult to keep a lot of these clear. Troops had to be more alert using these routes.

Actually, the biggest victims of IEDs are civilians. The terrorists must go to great lengths to place IEDs in populated areas, where all the structures and clutter along the roads leaves more hiding places. But the locals not keen on having a large bomb go off in their neighborhood. The terrorists often don't give the locals much choice. After all, terrorists know how to terrorize, and they usually start with uncooperative civilians living around them. IEDs placed in rural areas are much easier to spot by the Americans, and all their UAVs, electronic gadgets and sharp eyed soldiers. The training lanes enable troops to practice these skills, and make mistakes that won't kill them.

The basic idea of IEDs is that, by causing a dozen or so American casualties a day, they will eventually cause the Americans to get discouraged and go home. This seemed to work in Vietnam, although it didn't work for the Japanese during World War II. So it's not a sure thing.




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