Electronic Weapons: Do IED Jammers Really Work?

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October 29,2008:  The U.S. Department of Defense continues to buy new generations of IED (roadside bomb) jammers. The latest model is CREW (Counter- Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare) 2.1. CREW 3.0 is already being developed. These devices, for use in vehicles, cost about $77,000 each and are now reprogrammable. There is some debate over how effective they are. Two things are known. The devices have been in use for five years, with frequent new models and upgrades. Also, the many terrorists in Iraq put out nearly 40 roadside bombs for every American they kill. Something was defeating the bombs, and the U.S. military will not discuss details of what the terrorists were saying among themselves, or exactly how many bombs were defeated solely by the jammers. It appears that the jammers are useful enough to justify the several billion dollars invested on them. The classified details of the jammer's impact on the war has been discussed with some members of Congress, and no one has come out demanding an investigation of all the money "wasted" on jammers. That says a lot.

In most parts of the world, the cell phone or remote control toy is still the favored method of setting off these bombs. Where possible, just running a wire is preferred, as it is cheap, and cannot be jammed. The jammers available to American and NATO armed forces can also be obtained by most police departments. There have not been many takers, mainly because the American Warlock and CREW jammers interfere with so many frequencies. Hardly any wireless device works as long as one of these jammers is nearby. That makes the security forces very unpopular, at least if there are very few roadside bombs going off.

Terrorists are coming with more ways to get around the jammers used by security forces, to defeat roadside bombs. Some bombs have been detonated by light sensors set off by camera flash. This proved to be tricky, as you had to get the light just right. Another resourceful method was the use of a radar Speed Trap detector set off by a radar gun. This is actually an old one, originally used by Irish terrorists over two decades ago. It's believed, however, that the Iraqi terrorists reinvented it. Another popular improvisation is the use of the keyless Entry systems for automobiles. In this case, modified systems, that had a longer range (over a hundred meters) have been used to set off some bombs. CREW was apparently modified to deal with this one. 

Iraq is where some 90 percent of the roadside bombs have been used in the past five years, although Afghanistan is now becoming the primary are for this type of weapon. Until the end of 2007, the roadside bomb was a major industry in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. The building, placing and detonating of these bombs is subcontracted to one of hundreds of teams that specialize in those tasks. The chief proponent of the roadside bomb are the Sunni Arab security officials who used to work for Saddam. These guys are still well financed, and that's what has made the roadside bomb such a major part of the Iraq war.

IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, became the primary terrorist weapon in Iraq because they limited attacker casualties. By the end of 2007, about 81,000 of them were used, mostly against U.S. troops. During that period, IEDs killed about 2,100 U.S. troops. That's about one American killed for every 38 IEDs used. Not particularly impressive, but as the only effective weapon the Iraqi terrorists had, they got 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. Of total of 81,000 IEDs used, about 30 percent were used in 2007, the year that al Qaeda and its Sunni allies were defeated. Because of the surge offensive, and the declining effectiveness of terror groups, the number used in 2007 was less than the previous year. Another factor in the decline is the growing cost of building and placing these bombs. The 600,000 tons of Saddams munitions that were scattered all over the country in early 2003, were largely been found and destroyed by 2007. By then, terrorists often had to make their own explosives, or pay big bucks to the black market dealers or smugglers. The people who place and detonate IEDs were demanding more money, because their job had gotten more dangerous.

During 2004, about a third of U.S. casualties in Iraq were from roadside bombs. There are also a lot of ambushes with AK-47s and RPGs, but these cause fewer casualties. The most exposed U.S. troops are those moving supplies, and other stuff, around the country. There are 300-400 convoy operations a day in Iraq, most of them being supply runs. This involves over 3,000 vehicles, and some 6,000 troops. Casualties from attacks on convoys are relatively low, although soldiers who drive dangerous routes regularly have 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 Saddams 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 are getting so much ink in Iraq is because the terrorists are unable to inflict many casualties on American troops any other way. The Sunni Arab fighters in Iraq are, 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 about three times more 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 are good at. You also suffer a lot fewer casualties by using IEDs, so the weapon is good for the morale of the users. Over the last four years, the IED has been used more and more. 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 target 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.

IEDs were big business in Iraq for several years. Most of the Iraqis making and planning these bombs were not doing it for free. They got paid, and the bomb building industry generated over ten million dollars a year in revenues for Iraqi individuals and contractors. For a Sunni Arab who once worked for Saddam, this was one of the few good employment opportunities available. Moreover, the low risk aspect has brought out the "Geeks-for-Saddam," crowd and resulted in many snazzy instructional DVDs and videos for wannabe bomb makers. Excellent graphics, and everything is in Arabic. Many of these items have been captured, along with a few of the geeks. The educational effort was supported by the terrorist leaders because it was obvious that, without constantly improving the bomb designs and planting tactics, the failure rate would soon get to 99 percent, or worse.

The organizations that provided the money for bomb building, and helped with obtaining materials (there's a black market for everything in Iraq, everything), evolved. They had to, as the management of the IED campaign quickly became prime suspects, and much sought after by U.S. troops and Iraqi police. But you don't hear much about this in the media, for the simple reason that American intelligence did not want to let on how much it knew and how close it was getting to the remaining IED kingpins. That was very much a war in the shadows, and one that extended into neighboring countries. By early 2008, most of the IED gangs were destroyed, severely damaged, or disbanded (by lack of work, or fear).

The biggest victims of IEDs were Iraqis, especially civilians. The terrorists went to great lengths to place IEDs in populated areas, where all the structures and clutter along the roads provided more hiding places. But the local Iraqis were 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 Iraqis living around them. IEDs place in rural areas are much easier to spot by the Americans, and all their UAVs, electronic gadgets and sharp eyed soldiers.

The Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists believed that if they kept it up long enough, causing a dozen or so American casualties a day, they would eventually cause the Americans to get discouraged and go home. This worked in Vietnam, although it didn't work for the Japanese during World War II. It didn't work in Iraq, because the terrorists lost the support of the population, while the Americans gained it.

 

 


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