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Military Grapples with Onslaught of Homemade Bombs in Iraq

June 21, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: A U.S. and Iraqi joint operation continued today north of Baghdad in the insurgent stronghold of Diyala province. It’s called Operation Arrowhead Ripper. One target of the sweep: the bomb-making factories that supply the raw materials for the daily carnage on the streets of Baghdad and beyond.

Eleven of the 14 Americans killed over the last two days fell victim to what has become the weapon of choice for Iraq’s various insurgent groups: the improvised explosive device, or IED. The homemade bombs have become the scourge of American forces in Iraq and a key tactical advantage for the insurgency.

This month alone, 75 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq — 51 of 68 — were caused by IEDs; that’s according to the online database iCasualties.org. Since the war began, 40 percent of the more than 3,500 U.S. dead have been killed by the bombs, with the majority coming since May 2005.

Today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commented on the IED attacks.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: The kinds of IEDs that happened yesterday, where we lost five soldiers in one attack and four in another, those are the kinds of attacks that our enemy would like to impose on us.

RAY SUAREZ: In the hope of cutting casualties, the American military created an IED task force in 2003 to combat the threat. It’s since grown to an organization spending than $4 billion to devise tactics, armaments and technological means to defeat the bombs. It’s called the Joint IED Defeat Organization. It’s known by its acronym, JIEDDO.

Earlier this year, the U.S. military revealed a new and more powerful version of the IED, called an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, was now being used in Iraq. American officials say the weapons are being made in Iran. The device can defeat the defenses on the most heavily armored U.S. vehicles, including the 60-ton Abrams tank. It blasts a molten projectile with immense force through its target.

Low-tech trumping high-tech devices

Noah Shachtman
Wired Magazine
What makes [IEDs] so effective is really their low-tech, sort of scrap-yard approach. You can use almost anything to make an IED.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the challenges of IEDs, we get three perspectives. Marine Major Owen West served two tours in Iraq. He's now in the Individual Ready Reserves and is a novelist and commodities trader. Noah Shachtman is contributing editor at Wired magazine. He's traveled in Iraq with an American military unit charged with countering IEDs. David Ignatius is a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post. He's been to Iraq more than a dozen times since the war began.

And, Noah Shachtman, I'd like to start with you. The raw number and the percentage of casualties from IEDs has increased steadily throughout the war. What makes them such an effective weapon for the enemy?

NOAH SHACHTMAN, Contributing Editor, Wired Magazine: Well, what makes them so effective is really their low-tech, sort of scrap-yard approach. You can use almost anything to make an IED, from a group of artillery shells left over from Saddam's regime to very complicated explosives that shoot out jets of molten metal.

You can use motorcycle batteries. You can use washing machine timers. You can use garage door openers, cordless phones. Just about anything can be assembled into an improvised explosive. And because of that, there's no one solution, no one way to stop them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Owen West, from the point of view of the soldier, describe what makes them so hard to defend against.

MAJ. OWEN WEST, U.S. Marines: Well, before you arrive in Iraq, you go through a series of training evolutions that show you what to look for, where there's some litter sprinkled on the road and other signs of IEDs. I can tell you that, when you arrive, you realize that, if they want to get you with an IED, they're going to be able to hit your vehicle.

They're really pernicious because most of the patrolling we do is by vehicle. So IEDs will still be a part of the problem in Iraq until we change three things: our patrolling tactics; our relationship with the people; and, third, we need an identification system for the insurgents.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Ignatius, you heard that, "until we change three things." Have American tactics in defending against IEDs evolved over time?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Certainly we're spending an awful lot of money trying to solve this problem. You'll be hearing later in the show about the efforts to combat IEDs. We've authorized $6.3 billion in spending to deal with the problem. We're looking at very high-tech solutions.

I think, in a sense, this is the heart of our problem with asymmetric warfare. These crude, low-tech devices are facing the highest-tech military the world has ever seen, and the daily carnage, the numbers like we've had today of American kids getting killed, are really taking a toll, especially with the American public. And I just don't -- it's hard for me to imagine that our high-tech solutions will move as quickly as the low-tech bombs and bombers can put these devices by the roadsides.

RAY SUAREZ: But you've been in and out of Iraq all during the years of the war. When you've come back, have you seen a response, have you seen tactics in use that are different from the ones the last time you left?

DAVID IGNATIUS: What's heartbreaking is that a lot of what I've seen over the last four years is soldiers and units improvising their own responses to improvised explosive devices, coming up with homemade rigs. You saw attach solder to the fronts of vehicles. You know, we're much more sophisticated now.

But the problem is these devices are so cheap and so easy to distribute, it just seems as if low-tech keeps trumping high-tech. We do keep advancing our efforts to combat them, but, you know, look at the numbers. It doesn't seem like we're winning this war.

Commercial vs. military technology

Maj. Owen West
U.S. Marine Corps
You feel much, much safer in a vehicle in Iraq than you would have three years ago, for example. The problem is that there's just so many IED attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Noah Shachtman, you heard what David Ignatius said. Have there been technological suggestions, ways to address this that have been effective over the past three years?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Well, there have been things that have been partially effective. But to go back to what David said, I'm not sure that low-tech beats high-tech. In some ways, high-tech beats high-tech. The insurgents are able to take advantage of advances in commercial technology that a slow-moving, often bureaucratic Pentagon just simply can't. So I think, in some ways, it's low-tech versus high-tech. In some ways, it's commercial tech versus military tech.

Now, have there been advances? Yes, they have. They've been partially effective. The biggest advance is the development of radiofrequency jammers. These are devices that interrupt the signals that so often trigger improvised explosives. At the start of the war, there was a few hundred of them; now, there are plans to buy over 37,000.

And they have been partially effective, but there are other ways to trigger a bomb other than by radio frequency. And also, because so many jammers have been bought so quickly, there's a hodgepodge of jammers out there. And some work in particular frequencies; others work in other frequencies. And so there's no one jammer right now that stops all radio-controlled bombs.

RAY SUAREZ: Owen West, following on from what Noah Shachtman just said, is there a technological fix that will gain the confidence of the soldier on the ground? And when changes like these radio jammers have been made, have the insurgents just figured out a way to get around them or catch up?

MAJ. OWEN WEST: Well, in terms of confidence, there's no doubt that the joint IED task force is appreciated in Iraq. I mean, you feel much, much safer in a vehicle in Iraq than you would have three years ago, for example. The problem is that there's just so many IED attacks.

The nice thing that I'm hearing out of Iraq now is that we're trying to go after the network behind the IED, not the technology itself. And what does that mean? That means General Odierno and General Petraeus have just come out with a counterinsurgency guide.

The very first point is to secure the people where they sleep. The fourth point is to get out of your vehicles and patrol. Let's face it: If we weren't in our vehicles, IEDs would dramatically fall. It's because we patrol in vehicles that they're able to hit us like this.

So if we're out among the people, getting tips from them, as the Iraqi troops that I was involved with use that tactic, IEDs will dramatically decrease.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Owen West, don't you just become a target in a different way once you get out of the vehicle and start to walk on foot patrol?

MAJ. OWEN WEST: No, Ray, you don't, because if you're engaging with the people, they tip you off before you get there. In Iraq, at least when I left, the national rate for IED discoveries to IED exploded was about 50-50. The Iraqis whom I've advised had over 110 IEDs during the time I was there. They discovered 95 of them, and they had five to 10 explode.

That was because, every time they turned a corner, they were out of their vehicles engaging the populous. And this is the tactics that we're starting to see the Americans employ during the surge.

Getting back on foot

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
You look at the pictures of those young soldiers who are dying every month...almost all of them in the last month were killed by improvised explosive devices. So you can't say we're succeeding when that's the picture that Americans are looking at.

RAY SUAREZ: David Ignatius, some people have described that idea of getting back on foot and out of the vehicles as a kind of surrender, because it allows -- it doesn't allow you the same kind of control and ability to project force down the road over large distances. What are people on the ground in Iraq thinking about just that suggestion you heard from Owen west?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think the idea behind General Petraeus' use of the additional troops and the troop surge to get them out of the large concentrations and into forward-operating bases into more decentralized locations in Baghdad, closer to the people, makes sense as a counterinsurgency strategy. It also makes them more vulnerable.

At the same time, there is a massive effort, really driven by the IED problem, to use our most sophisticated technology. You know, we have dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles over the skies of Baghdad and Iraq everyday. We have, I would think, hundreds of sensors of different kinds gathering data, watching roads.

And one problem that's emerging is that there's so much raw data coming into the system that it's increasingly difficult to analyze it, and make sense of it, and to see the bomb that's going to kill the kids that you read about in the paper the next morning. And so I think the more we use technology, the more we need technology to make sense of the data that we're coming up with.

RAY SUAREZ: Has JIEDDO, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, worked in your view?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think that, you know, when we look at the numbers of kids who are still dying, you can't say it's worked. You know, is it working? Is it helping to reduce this threat? Yes, obviously, you know, the number of IEDs that are discovered continues to be what Owen West said. You know, we're discovering half the ones that are placed. Of the ones that explode, I'm told only one in six result in serious casualties.

So the problem is being mitigated, but it isn't being solved. And the reality is, I mean, you look at the pictures of those young soldiers who are dying every month that we publish in the Washington Post and other newspapers, published, almost all of them in the last month were killed by improvised explosive devices. So you can't say we're succeeding when that's the picture that Americans are looking at.

RAY SUAREZ: Noah Shachtman, you heard David Ignatius just now talk about the data overload about intelligence coming in, in copious amounts, and the inability to keep up with it all. Is that a kind of military defense program, a weapons system, intelligence and information that maybe we don't give enough credit to?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Well, I mean, certainly having those overhead views from drones can help, and certainly having better intelligence can help. But I think, at the end of the day, Owen West is right, that the best intelligence you're going to get is on foot, talking to locals, mixing it up with the people, and getting to know the people in the neighborhood you're patrolling. I think that that, at the end of the day, trumps any high-tech system.

RAY SUAREZ: And can you up-armor your way out of this, Noah Shachtman?

NOAH SHACHTMAN: No, you can't. There are vehicles that are slowly being brought out into the field, called mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, that do do a better job of protecting against IEDs. They have a v-shaped hull, which deflects bomb blasts, instead of a square one, like Humvees do, which is almost perfectly set up to absorb bomb blasts.

So there are things that can be done on the vehicle side to make them safer. But nothing, no vehicle is ever going to be completely impregnable.

RAY SUAREZ: Owen West, will the MRAP just encourage the insurgents to build bigger and more lethal IEDs?

MAJ. OWEN WEST: Well, there's some truth to the fact that this is spy versus spy. There will be a counter to every move we make. I can tell you, number one, that soldiers are eagerly anticipating the MRAP, because it is a really powerfully armored vehicle.

But, number two, if you look at what's happening in Anbar province, attacks are down dramatically because, number one, we've got better coverage with Iraqi and American joint forces and, number two, we've got cooperation from the locals. As soon as you start getting those tips -- and we used to get them with methods as crude as they would write something in Arabic, crumple it up in a piece of paper, and throw it as you, as if the local was angry at you, because they didn't want to reveal themselves as a collaborator -- we'd open up the trash, and there would be the exact location of four or five IEDs.

This will start to happen when the Iraqis and Americans begin to know the streets they're patrolling and live out in the streets, and that's how we'll reduce IEDs.

RAY SUAREZ: Thank you, gentlemen.

Pentagon's efforts

Gen. Montgomery Meigs (Ret.)
U.S. Army
The enemy puts out six times as many IEDs as he did in June of 2003 for basically the same effect, in terms of rate of casualties overall. He's working six times harder as a result of the great work being done by troops in the field.

And now the Pentagon's war against IEDs. As we heard, the organization leading that effort is known as the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO. The man in charge is Army General Montgomery Meigs. He was called out of retirement in 2005 to run the Pentagon program.

And, first, let's get your response to David Ignatius' critique that, if you just look at the casualty reports, no, your effort isn't working yet.

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS, U.S. Army: Well, it is working. The enemy puts out six times as many IEDs as he did in June of 2003 for basically the same effect, in terms of rate of casualties overall. He's working six times harder as a result of the great work being done by troops in the field, the training they never see before they deploy, and the better armoring that goes on of vehicles, and the armor that goes on soldiers and Marines when they're on mission, better intelligence, better sensors to give warning of where IEDs are.

And it's true, the enemy is able to raise his game in terms of numbers. He's raised his game in terms of the type of sophistication and some of the things that he puts out there. But he is not inflicting a greater casualty rate, at least until recently, in the latest information that has been -- it's had all the duplicates taken out of it that isn't in yet.

RAY SUAREZ: But the enemy apparently has the capacity to increase the pace of their attacks six-fold. How do you defend against a weapon that's so cheap, so lethal, and so easily placed?

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS: Well, you do a variety of things. First of all, there's a major effort going on to ensure that the training is given to units before they depart is as tough and as realistic as we can make it.

Secondly, we spend a lot of money and effort at defending at the point of attack. That's everything from jammers that no one mentioned, to better armor on the Humvees, to better ways of soldiers to see the IEDs, to off-leash search dogs, you name it. And soldiers find roughly 52 percent of these things, no matter how many the enemy puts out.

Finally, and critically important, we have to go after the networks that fund, provide, fabricate, deliver, and employ these systems. You do that in a variety of ways. The obvious way is very, very good, specific intelligence that finds the people that are doing that and ties them together and goes after them to either capture them and, if they resist in a way that provides a lethal threat to our soldiers, they respond accordingly.

Also, however, one has to go after the motivation that occurs in communities, tribes, and families to do this kind of behavior. And that results from what Owen was talking about. They see an interest in having an ability to have their kids walk to school and go to the market without being harassed. And so it's a combination of all of these things that generates the political will that eventually solves the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the suggestion you heard in the last few minutes to take away the target, in effect by relying less on armored patrols and more on foot?

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS: I think that's happening. I think you've seen General Ray Odierno and General Dave Petraeus change the profile that units are exhibiting in the field by distributing units into these small locations, more emphasis on dealing with the people. Tips are up. The caches discovered are up by a significant amount.

It takes time for the overall pattern to emerge. We're seeing some positive developments, particularly the activity by the tribes in al-Anbar province against al-Qaida in Iraq. And now we have to let this new set of operational tactics and procedures play for a while to see where that's going to take us. But it's heading in that direction that Owen was talking about.

RAY SUAREZ: There was a little bit of disagreement over whether high-tech is trumped by low-tech, but certainly they can afford to miss more often and have more duds, can't they, then you can afford to miss those bombs?

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS: Oh, absolutely. We have to be right almost all of the time; they can afford to be wrong a lot and still hurt some people. There's no question about that.

It's not just -- you need high-tech and low-tech. Remember, the single best sensor for finding IEDs remain soldiers' and Marines' eyeballs. However, there's a lot of other things we put out there to help them raise their game, to help them be more effective in avoiding these things, and more effective at going after the networks that put them out there.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, so far, can we leave people with a specific example of something JIEDDO has suggested, developed, or put into place that has had a direct effect on the number of lethal attacks using improvised explosive devices?

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS: We have improved in less than a year the UAV -- unmanned aerial vehicle -- profile in country. It's had a major impact on both going after networks and placers. We're the ones that put the new family of jammers out there. And when the 37,000 are bought, there will only be four different types of jammers all able to deal with the same threats and one family of dismounted jammers, just as examples.

RAY SUAREZ: So do you feel pretty comfortable telling Americans that their $6 billion-plus dollars is well-spent?

GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS: We're making headway.

RAY SUAREZ: General Meigs, thanks a lot.