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Improvised explosive devices

Posted by John Reed on

Improvised explosive devices

They’re command-detonated mines
I do not know why they call them IEDs. They are actually command-detonated mines. A command-detonated mine is one that is detonated by remote control by a person who is observing the kill zone. The other kind of mine is a contact mine which is detonated by stepping on it or driving over it or hitting a trip wire tied to it. Some contact mines, especially those used in water, have magnetic detonators which detonate not on contact per se but on proximity which can be magnetically sensed.

Command-detonated mines are indicated when the enemy will not be on top of a place where it is easy to place a mine, like a dirt road or trail. In those cases, like where a road is paved, the mine is placed to the side of the enemy rather than underneath as with contact mines. Also, a command-detonated mine is used when the enemy wants to let some traffic pass without detonating the mine. Contact mines detonate no matter who touches them. Command-detonated mines only go off when the remote control operator sees the target enemy in the kill zone.

Command-detonated mines have been around since the invention of electricity—maybe before that. (You could pull a string to detonate a mine.) In Vietnam, the most common command-detonated mine was was the Claymore mine which was an American weapon. It was used for ambushes and perimeter defense.

The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan is using the IED for ambushes.

New weapon?
So what’s all the “golly gee” about the “new” weapon?

The way to avoid being hurt by a Claymore in Vietnam was to refrain from driving through the kill zone when an enemy was observing and waiting for you. (I did drive through such a kill zone in Vietnam and there was probably an enemy who had the detonator ready to set off a captured American Claymore mine, but he chose to wait for a more lucrative target, namely a convoy that was some miles behind me. I was a lieutenant in a lone jeep with a sergeant. Apparently, not a lucrative enough target. I was ordered to drive down that road. See my military page and my review of We Were One for more details.)

The way for the North Vietnamese to avoid a claymore mine when they attacked a U.S. base was to sneak up and disconnect or reverse the direction of the Claymore, that is, point it at the Americans, before attacking. We did not camouflage Claymores generally when they were used in perimeter defense. We did hide them when they were used in ambushes.

The enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan camouflages IEDs using camouflage that is suited to urban areas like a dead animal or human, a pile of manure, an apparent concrete curb, and so on. But the use of camouflage when a command-detonated mine is used in an ambush is an ancient tactic that has long been used by the U.S. military and others.

Wires, radio, whatever
Claymores and most past command-detonated mines used wires to send the detonation signal because the area over which they were stretched was generally secure from enemy observation. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they generally prefer radio remote control because they do not want the Americans to spot and follow the wires to the bad guy. But remote radio-control technology has been around since World War II. It just was not needed in prior wars.

Again, what is all the surprise about IEDs? How are they new?

True, IEDs are jury rigged by combining artillery shells and cell phones or garage door openers, but so what? The enemy in Vietnam put them in Coke cans, buried them under the road, and so forth. So did the Germans and Japanese. There is little meaningful difference between a Claymore Mine, that is designed and mass-produced to be used as a command-detonated mine and an IED which is designed and hand-made to be used as a command-detonated mine.

So why does everyone involved in the Iraq war call them IEDs and talk about them as a “new” weapon? Sounds like some sort of spin to excuse the stupidity of letting thousands of our troops get killed by them.

Ducks in a shooting gallery
In shooting galleries they have sitting ducks that don’t move and moving ducks. Our troops move around Iraq and Afghanistan on roads in hummvees and other vehicles like the moving ducks in the shooting gallery. Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith said during the Iraq war,

I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even by criminal, I cannot support that any more.


I surmise the answer to “Why?” would be that the alternative would be to leave those countries altogether.

So leave.

In Vietnam, we turned the area for about 300 meters on either side of many rural roads into flat dirt that looked like the infield of a Major League Baseball team. That was pretty effective at preventing the enemy from ambushing us on those roads. I doubt our government would do it in Iraq because the IEDs are generally used in urban areas and this would require flattening and depopulating most of the cities.

Lives lost; nothing gained
I do not see the point of continuing to have our troops drive around in Iraq and Afghanistan getting blown up by IEDs. I am aware that lives are traded for territory or destruction of enemy men or materiel in war. The problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is we are not getting anything in return for the IED dead.

We drive down the street. Some bad guy sees us, detonates the IED, and goes back to sipping his latte or whatever he was doing. If we question him, he will deny that he is anything other than an innocent civilian. He will even show us that the cell phone in question is for calling his wife and brother. The U.S. personnel who died in that attack were not traded for any territory, men, or materiel.

So stop driving down the street. Why is this not obvious to everyone in the U.S. military and defense department?

No repetitive patterns
There are some alternatives if we stay in those countries. We were taught in Ranger school not to behave in a pattern. Be different every time you went anywhere. Stay off the road or path. Walk through the jungle or river instead.

Driving down the street is a pattern. If we walk through the yards and over the roofs as they did in Europe in World War II it is harder for the enemy to booby trap our path. They do not know in advance what our path will be.

Roads are like narrow canyons. Even the cowboys and Indians in the old 1950s movies knew not to go through a narrow canyon in enemy territory. So did all of us kids who watched those movies.

In Vietnam, the American battalions would tromp through the jungle all day then bed down for the night. While they were bedding down, the enemy would plant booby traps all around them so they would step on them when they continued their movement the following morning, which they did.

Army Rangers, in contrast, operated in six-man teams in Vietnam and were inserted covertly by helicopters that would land at multiple places in the jungle letting the Rangers off on one such landing and faking letting them off at the other landings. The Rangers then pussy-footed around in the jungle at night only to set up their ambushes on known trails or to reconnoiter an enemy position or trail, then the Rangers would sneak out and get extracted by a helicopter. Rangers suffered no mine casualties to speak of. You cannot use mines against soldiers whose path you know not. Rangers killed about 50 enemy for every Ranger killed. The Army and Marines in general killed about ten enemy for every American killed.

National Geographic HDTV IED story
In late August, 2007, I saw a National Geographic HDTV broadcast about a special forces unit in Afghanistan. A National Geographic HDTV crew accompanied them. The NG guys take great video pictures, but they did not know squat about the military and you cannot report on the military properly when your crew is that ignorant.

The unit looked like about 12 guys. They seemed to visit small villages and hand out candy and radios and such. It was not totally clear to me what their mission was. They seemed to be trying to win the natives over to the U.S. and Afghan central government side and away from the Taliban just by being nice guys and talking about what needed to happen. But it appeared that the Taliban had enough presence in the area to murder any Afghan who cooperated with the Americans or Kabul government and seemed to be doing just that. Truth to tell, the effort looked sort of feeble and pathetic and it was not clear that the Americans could protect themselves let alone protect the villagers.

One of the U.S. special forces guys was a leader and very confident and breezy. They spoke of having as their goal to get all their men home safely. That appears to be a catchphrase of the various U.S. wars in the Middle East. I do not recall hearing that phrase in Vietnam so widely.

It’s an incorrect goal and may be a big part of why we lost the Vietnam war. The proper goal hierarchy is

1. accomplish the mission
2. welfare of the troops

Getting “everyone home in one piece” must always be the secondary priority: welfare of the troops. You cannot make that the top priority. In addition to violating the most basic rule of command, it makes you defensive minded and the best defense is a good offense.

Also, I got mad at a young recent West Point grad who bragged to me in an email that he had gotten all his men home in one piece from Iraq. I accused him of hubris.

Did all of the men in my Vietnam platoon return safely to the U.S. Yes, as far as I know. Since everyone came and went one at a time there, I can only speak about what happened to my men during the time I was their platoon leader and that was no casualties. Should I get any credit for that? Hell, no!

We all avoided being harmed by the enemy because the enemy chose not to harm us. As explained elsewhere, my platoon sergeant and I drove through an ambush on Route 13 near the Parrot’s Beak once. The enemy simply chose to wait for a more lucrative target than a lone jeep with a sergeant first class and a first lieutenant. I did not protect us. Otherwise, my men simply never got shot at. And if they had, how, exactly, was I supposed to stop them from getting hurt?

Did I or the braggadocios young West Pointer know how to prevent mortar rounds from lading on our men? Nope. About the only way to prevent that is really deep bunkers. But bunkers are strictly defensive. Did we know how to make sure there were no mines or booby traps on routes they had to travel? Nope. We hoped the engineers did that each morning but we knew they were not perfect at it. Did we know how to prevent a marksman sniper from killing any of our men from 400 or 500 yards away in the jungle? Not a clue.

Men generally die in battle because of the fortunes of war. The skill of the leaders and the troops themselves can be a factor, but it can just as easily be irrelevant. It depends on the particular situation.

In the stream bed
The special forces guys said they tried not to use the same route repeatedly so the enemy could not plant IEDs. They said in particular that they often drove their hummvees in the stream bed rather than on the road. The TV program showed them doing just that at least twice. Good move. But they also said that an IED had been used against them once when they were driving in the stream bed.

Not good. That means that they had done it so often that the enemy could anticipate their doing it again and did. It’s not enough to vary your route. You have to use a route the enemy does not expect at all. Once they have a reasonable probability of forecasting your route, you will be the target of an IED.

After screwing around in a village, they drove up to camp for the night on top of a nearby hill. Watching the show, this struck me as a very bad idea. They were clearly in Indian Country. They were monitoring the enemy radios and could hear the enemy stalking them and talking about them. Twelve guys is a fairly low number. The enemy did not appear to be in great strength, but almost any enemy unit could give 12 guys trouble. And if they could assemble 15 or 20 or so bad guys, the Americans could be overrun.

They got to the hill at twilight and found an IED. Seems to me that means the enemy knows where you plan to camp, apparently because you camped there repeatedly in the past. There’s that pattern that they said they knew to avoid again. Had I been the commander at that point, I expect I would tell the men to wait until dark, then we would move to another location that the enemy would not likely have expected us to occupy. That was common in Vietnam. The Americans would stop to camp for to the night, knowing the enemy was watching, but once it was dark, they would sneak out to another location 750 or 1,000 meters away. The enemy would mortar the original position and plant booby traps around it during the dark.

In the NG TV show, the American commander ordered the IED blown up. I would not have done that because it would alert the enemy to the fact that we found it. They then, in the pitch dark, located and blew up six more IEDs on that hilltop. Jesus H. Christ! The enemy really expects you to be there. What the heck kind of pattern avoidance preceded this?

They then declared the hill safe—in the pitch dark! Let me get this straight. We approached the hilltop in daylight observed by the enemy. We located and blew up seven IEDs on the hilltop, and now we still think this is a good motel to check into for the night?

The Americans with some Afghan allies then drove up the road to the hill top. In pitch dark. How do you drive in the dark in an area with absolutely no lights? They placed green chemical light sticks on each side of the road to guide the hummvee drivers. That was cute. They don’t make much light, but they make enough to be seen by the hummvee drivers—AND THE ENEMY!

Then, as they went up the hill, one of the Afghan drivers turned on his headlights! We were trained in our first summer at West Point that after dark in the presence of the enemy, you do not even light a match or smoke a cigarette. It can be seen for miles. The NG narrator characterized this as a “bad move.” “Bad move!?” I thought it was deliberate sabotage.

Had I been the U.S. commander, I might have summarily executed that Afghan on the spot on the assumption that he was a spy. At the very least I would have declared him too stupid to live and handcuffed and gagged him pending later discipline by the Afghan army. I also would have immediately turned out all the lights and light sticks and gotten the heck off that hill.

First their location had been compromised by the destruction of the IEDs. Then it had been further compromised by the light sticks and headlights. The enemy knows exactly where we are. We need to sneak away in the dark to where they do not know where we are.

With just men, you do that in single file line. In ranger school, each of us had a luminous tape on the back of our hat. The guy behind you would follow your tape. For fun, we would sometimes take off our hat and hold it out to the side and walk the guy behind us into a tree. Or we would slowly take the hat off then drop it, making the guy behind think we had fallen off a cliff.

Those tapes could only be seen from about five or six feet away. I am not sure how to do that with vehicles, but I expect you make them part of the single file line of men and guide them by having a couple of guys along side the driver’s side who are part of the walking file. You would have to turn off the engines and coast down hill, pushing them occasionally on flat spots. Noise, like tiny lights, carries long distances at night.

Seems to me that the U.S. commander should have moved to another location at least several hundred meters away from the hill top after dark once it was clear that the enemy knew they were there and planned to stay.

In the event, the U.S. commander started to move his trucks, with engines running noisily, and men up the hill after they “cleared” it of all IEDs. They learned they had not cleared it when one went off next to one of their hummvees killing two men and wounding a number of others. The NG narrator said it was the highest number of U.S. casualties in one shot in the Afghan war.

I wasn’t there. I do not understand their mission. But it seemed like they were sufficiently exposed that they needed to refrain from doing anything that the enemy could anticipate to the point of planting IEDs in their path. And it appeared that they showed the enemy numerous patterns as well as remained in the area after the enemy knew where they were. Rangers would never do such a thing on a normal Ranger mission. Keeping the enemy ignorant of your location is crucial when you are operating in enemy territory in small numbers far from fellow U.S. units.

Bottom line, the commander did not get his men home all in one piece, or at least one living piece.

Again, all I know is what was in the TV show. There may be pertinent facts that put what the U.S. commander did in a different light.

Bill Cosby’s comedy routine
In one of Bill Cosby’s old comedy routines on his 1963 album (Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow Right! ) he wondered what it would have been like if the Revolutionary War had been run by football referees. He said it might have gone something like this.

Call the toss there, British. British called "heads." It's tails. You lose the toss, British. The settlers win. What will you do, settlers?

All right. The settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot behind the rocks, trees and everywhere. British, your team must wear red and march in a straight line.

So how the hell did the descendants of those Revolutionary War Soldiers, the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan, let themselves become the Twenty-First Century equivalent of a Bill Cosby punch line?

No IEDS for the generals
A reader wants to know why the generals make our troops drive through the IED galleries. As far as I know, no generals—the guys who order the soldiers and Marines to drive through IED alleys—have been killed by IEDs. I therefore offer a modest proposal: require that every tenth hummvee driving through an IED alley contain a general in the passenger seat.

I am quite confident that, one way or another, the number of Americans being killed or wounded by IEDs would drop suddenly and precipitously if the generals started having to experience and share the risk. How, you may wonder, do the generals travel around Iraq and Afghanistan now? I am not sure, but in Vietnam, the colonels and above were very fond of commanding us by radio from helicopters flying above the range of enemy weapons.

John T. Reed

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

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