Weapons: IEDs for Idiots


November 6, 2006: The roadside bomb (or IED, improvised explosive device) has proved to be the most successful weapon used by Iraqi terrorists. As a result, IEDs tend to get reported as some kind of newish super weapon. However, 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 Arab terrorists in Iraq are not very effective. 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.

The Vietnamese terrorists (the Viet Cong) were much more formidable opponents. The Viet Cong were largely destroyed as a force during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and were eliminated as a force in the Vietnam war shortly thereafter. The North Vietnamese army then became the major factor in the war, and eventually conquered South Vietnam with a conventional invasion, coming across the border with tanks and artillery, in 1975. That was there second attempt, the one in 1972 was defeated. The Vietnam war involved irregulars and terrorists, but was finally won by a conventional operation. That particular aspect of the Vietnam war is generally forgotten, but there it is.

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. Contributing factors in Iraqi include better training and equipment for American and Coalition troops. But most of the reason for the historically low casualty rates in Iraq have to do with Iraqis who don't know how to fight effectively.

IEDs are another matter. They are mainly a matter of technology, planning and careful preparation for the attack. These are all things Iraqi Sunni Arabs 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 three 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. 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 is still 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.

Technology, in the form of electronic jammers (to interfere with detonation), UAVs (to fly over routes looking for IEDs, or people planting them) and intel analysis (to identify IED characteristics, and that of their makers) have contributed a lot, to nullifying most IEDs. But in the end, it's the troops in the vehicles subject to attack who are the last, and often most effective, line of defense. In the last two years, the number of IEDs used has increased fourfold, but American casualties have remained the same. IEDs are the weapon of a weak opponent. They kill many of your own people, and that eventually destroys support from the people the terrorists say they are fighting for. Unless IEDs can turn things around for the users, they are self-defeating. This isn't sexy, and doesn't make for exciting journalism, but there it is.




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