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The IED Threat Right Now

Few people focus more on the signature weapon of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — the improvised explosive device, or IED — than Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, who heads the military task force designed to study and defeat the IED threat known as JIEDDO. As is quickly clear from the acronym, IEDs aren’t a kind of device, they’re a category of device, ranging in intensity and lethality and sophistication and changing constantly in response to U.S. and allied efforts at overcoming them. The term itself is basically the military equivalent of a placeholder in math or physics for a constant.

Oates held a rare conference call with defense bloggers this afternoon, allowing me the opportunity to ask him for an overview of what the IED threat is right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in pre-2008 Iraq, “we saw a proliferation of military-grade explosives and projectiles” as a signature explosive tied to a “varying degree of sophisticated detonation capability.” (I remember there was a 2004 IED that flipped a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, even.) But that was then. Afghanistan is where the IED danger really is right now. “The threat is expanding,” Oates said. “It’s almost doubled in volume, the number of IEDs in the last year, the number of casualties.”

Why? Afghanistan’s IEDs are largely homemade explosives, not the jury-rigged military ordnance that Iraq featured, “centered around two types of fertilizer: potassium chloride and ammonium nitrate.” The Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan uses primarily potassium chloride. Detonators are usually rudimentary ones — “pressure-plate or trip-wire followed by some command wire-detonated [IEDs] and, third, remote control.” Although the sophistication of IEDs in Iraq is much higher than in Afghanistan, Oates said, and the IED threat is on the decline in Iraq, the “effectiveness [is] good in both” countries.

And why’s that? Put simply, much of the military’s detection capability for IEDs is built for the Iraq threat. When I was in eastern Afghanistan in 2008, for instance, IED sweeps by troops I embedded with were conducted primarily through metal detectors. Fertilizer-based IEDs, obviously, resist that detection. Combine that with the lack of paved roads in Afghanistan. Not only is it harder to spot a metal object peeking through the roads, but if you’re driving down a dirt road in a rural area, it can be hard to determine what’s typical compacted fertilizer and what’s a bomb. While Oates said that JIEDDO didn’t have notable resource shortfalls, but “we are struggling to get additional ISR capabilities into Afghanistan,” referring to increased intelligence and surveillance assets.

“We still have a technological challenge for detection [for] these low-metallic/non-metallic bombs,” Oates said.

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