Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Joint IED Mitigation Organization" just doesn't have quite the same ring to it

"I don't think you can defeat the IED as a weapon system. It is too easy to use."

So says LTG Michael Oates, director of JIEDDO. Yeah, that JIEDDO: the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Oates said technological advances have enabled the military to save lives by providing better armor and other forms of protection for troops. But he said the high-tech approach -- despite billions of dollars in research -- has failed to produce an effective way to detect IEDs in the field. About four-fifths of the devices that are found before they explode are detected the old-fashioned way: by troops who notice telltale signs, such as a recently disturbed patch of dirt that might be covering up a bomb.

Despite the insurgents' crude approach, the explosive power of their IEDs is growing. Each bombing in Afghanistan, on average, causes 50 percent more casualties than it did three years ago, Oates said Wednesday at a House committee hearing. U.S. officials say even armored troop-transport vehicles that were designed to protect against roadside bombs are now vulnerable.

IED attacks in Iraq have plummeted, you surely won't be surprised to learn.
Oates credited U.S. countermeasures -- such as interrupting the flow of military-grade explosives and detonators from Iran -- for some of the decrease. Other military officials said a bigger factor was the overall reduction in the intensity of the insurgency; as sectarian fighting faded, people simply stopped planting bombs.
Chicken or egg? Seems to me that while the interdiction of high-end bomb materials from outside the country would certainly have helped stanch the violence, it's far more likely that the stabilization of the security situation in Iraq was accompanied by a decrease in basically all types of violent incidents, including IEDs. After all, the Post article cited above -- and the military officials quoted therein -- emphasizes the fact that IEDs don't need to be built from bits off the Radio Shack shelves or Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) from the IRGC.

Political considerations made the adoption of a vehicle like the MRAP an inevitability. MRAPs have also saved a whole bunch of lives, so I don't mean to disparage their utility. But once the current conflicts are done, we're going to be left with a fleet of heavy, highly-armored vehicles well suited for buttoned-up patrolling on hardened roads in urban areas -- hardly the optimal system for the sort of conflicts we're likely to be engaged in over the coming decades. We can unload a few on the Iraqis and the Afghans, sure, but the program is an expensive one and has entailed some trade-offs.

So what's the point? I guess I'd say that we're learning that high technology might not be the answer to the IED problem. While a country like the U.S. certainly doesn't want to cede its technological advantage and should bring to bear whatever scientific and industrial capabilities may help to mitigate casualties and increase operational effectiveness, the conclusion I've drawn from Gunslinger and other combat soldiers and Marines is that the best counter-IED system is the Mk 1, Mod 1 eyeball. We can talk about network analysis and all the things the intel folks are doing to target construction and emplacement networks (or maybe we can't: I have no idea how that stuff works, and the details are mostly classified), too, but I think the conclusion here -- if we hadn't already drawn it -- is that there's not going to be a push-button answer to protecting our troops from IEDs.

Booby traps, mines, and hidden bombs will always be a cheap, unsophisticated, and effective countermeasure against foot patrol-intensive operations, and counterinsurgencies are very often going to be dependent on that sort of method of operation. I'm not saying we ought to give up looking for the magic bullet, but maybe there's a better way to think about how we spend our money and allocate our other resources to this mission.

9 comments:

  1. "But once the current conflicts are done, we're going to be left with a fleet of heavy, highly-armored vehicles well suited for buttoned-up patrolling on hardened roads in urban areas -- hardly the optimal system for the sort of conflicts we're likely to be engaged in over the coming decades."

    So what sort of conflicts are we likely to be engaged in over the coming decades, and with what degree of certainty can we know the answer to said question?

    ADTS

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  2. So what sort of conflicts are we likely to be engaged in over the coming decades, and with what degree of certainty can we know the answer to said question?

    In order: not clear, and low certainty.

    That said, we can speculate, and we can even make reasonably educated assessments. Based on those, we have to make acquisition decisions that favor the most likely and most dangerous scenarios, and hedge against others.

    I think it's fair to say that even if we're doing COIN in Moscow in ten years, MRAPs might not be the best choice for the future.

    That said, this wasn't really supposed to be about MRAPs, but rather about a mentality that tries to address effects instead of causes. Build a better bomb detector and the enemy builds a less-detectable bomb. Build better armor and the enemy takes advantage of the fact that you have to stay behind it. It's the essence of asymmetric warfare. So the question we ought to be asking ourselves is "how do we best maximize our relative advantages to proactively limit the enemy's freedom of action?"

    Now, obviously I don't know the answer. And it's probably trite and simplistic to say "the best way to keep IEDs from being emplaced is to assure information/intelligence dominance, which comes from territorial and population control," but it's also true.

    Now, recognizing that you can't control everything all the time, this might not be a transferable solution across the spectrum of conflict. But it strikes me as a pretty common-sense pillar of asymmetric thinking: if you deny access to the enemy, then you mitigate the threat from his weapons and technology. The same thinking underlies China's anti-access/area-denial oriented "Assasin's Mace" approach, but on a strategic scale.

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  3. "I guess I'd say that we're learning that high technology might not be the answer to the IED problem."

    Well, either way, it's heart-breaking. So I did attend that medical conference that I talked about around here, and while most of it covered leadership training and team-building, some of it covered IED injuries and what the visiting surgeon had learned. The aggressive debridement of tissue needed in such situations kind of stood out - you always have to debride more tissue than you'd think you have to, said the surgeon. The stuff from the blast won't wash out - it's too deeply embedded in the tissue. The austerity of the operating situations and the awesomeness of the medical personnel stood out, too....

    http://jaaos.org/cgi/content/full/15/10/590

    Not a surgeon, but I kind of massively geek out on this stuff, sometimes.

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  4. Ah, Inkspots people - ur comments section is doing weird things these days.

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  5. Just to clarify: the above link is the quickest I could find online for the topic of tissue debridement in a certain setting, and had nothing to do with the conference :)

    Good post, Gulliver.

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  6. Madhu -- Thanks for chiming in with a different perspective. Definitely interesting, even though the whole surgery thing sort of oogs me out.

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  7. Is this a plea for me to stop with the (fairly rare, I think) medical anecdotes? It's all I've got to offer in comments, unless we are going to talk about OUR FEELINGS - in which case, I could write a dissertation in the comments section.

    *I thought SNLII said you were mostly rough-tough types who've seen it all? Which I'm starting to understand, a bit, although it's so completely and utterly outside of my experience that, I'll never really get it. A person ought to try, though....

    **I know you all don't mind, really. Just teasing.

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  8. There may not be a push-button answer. But technological advancements in the C-IED fight play a huge role. Just ask anyone who has used a CREW system in OIF or OEF.

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