The Military's Struggle to Defeat IEDs

Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007 11:00 AM

"It began with a bang and 'a huge white blast,' in the description of one witness who was there the morning of March 29, 2003. ... Four soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, part of the initial invasion of Iraq, had started to search an orange-and-white taxicab at 11:30 a.m. when more than 100 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive detonated in the trunk. ... Since that first fatal detonation of what is now known as an improvised explosive device, more than 81,000 IED attacks have occurred in Iraq, including 25,000 so far this year, according to U.S. military sources."

Washington Post Defense Reporter Rick Atkinson was online Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions about his in-depth examination of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military's difficult struggle to detect and defeat them.

The transcript follows.

Atkinson has been on book leave from the post while writing a three-volume history of World War II. The first volume, " An Army at Dawn," won a Pulitzer Prize; the second volume, " The Day of Battle," was released Tuesday.


Rick Atkinson: Good morning. This is Rick Atkinson. Thanks for your extraordinary interest in our series about improvised explosive devices. I look forward to your questions and comments.


Rockville, Md. : Knowing what I learned of ambush tactics in Vietnam (where I served with the First Infantry division in 66-67) and my training in physics -- I expected a U.S. government program to detonate roadside bombs at a distance. I knew that civilian radios had to be turned off near mines and highway demolitions work to prevent explosions and that the radio waves could cause the devices to explode. I also suspect a clever transmitter could detonate bombs by finding the right code or by "brute force" and sending all the codes quickly. I suspected that laser's cousin masers could be used in the process, but have no idea how they will be used.

So these months, I have thought that we had a product but did not want to use it because of security reasons. Now after reading this series, I really think this research was never done and we don't have much of an idea at all. Blockers and jammers? This is it? That trailer thing? What were they thinking? Why have we been so lazy? What do they do in the rest of the world?

Rick Atkinson: To give credit to the many people who are working hard on this issue -- and have been working hard for years -- I don't think anyone is lazy. Trying to find an effective countermeasure that provides "standoff" protection -- in other words, you'd like to be at least 100 meters from the blast seat -- and is sufficiently rugged to withstand the rigors of combat, Afghan terrain, etc., is simply a very difficult technical problem. True, there have been many missteps, and a lot of misspent money.


Boston, Mass.: Was the IED problem a predictable aspect of al-Qaeda's pre-9/11 strategy of drawing us into a protracted war with large numbers of U.S. troops and, literally and figuratively, bleeding us to death? Didn't our strategy of pre-emptive war really play into their strategy (and IED's are a lethal tactic for their strategy)? I think most Americans hoped our leaders would come up with a more nimble and focused response to Sept. 11 than where we are today.

Rick Atkinson: Obviously it's hard to know precisely what the al-Qaeda leadership was thinking, but I find it hard to credit them with the foresight to know that the IED would find a seam in the American military. (Of course our attack in Afghanistan wasn't pre-emptive, but rather in response to Sept. 11.) On the other hand, you probably don't have to be a great military strategist to know that one way to battle a far bigger and militarily superior adversary is to use the sort of asymmetrical, idiosyncratic means that the IED embodies.


Chicago: What do you see as the most critical approach to combating IEDs? Through technology (surveillance tools to detect IEDs) or better armored vehicles, etc.?

Rick Atkinson: Most people involved in this problem have recognized from the beginning the need to move "left of boom," to use the vernacular developed by the Army in 2003: that is, to attack the bombmaking construct well before IEDs are emplaced. That involves understanding the financiers, bombmaker cells, and other aspects of this, long before a bomb appears at the roadside. Only in the past year has the Pentagon begun moving in a concerted, purposeful way to left of boom. Obviously it's also necessary to do what you can to mitigate the blast -- right of boom -- with heavier vehicles, better personal armor, etc.


New York: To what extent do you think Iraq will be prove unique? One of the primary factors enabling the extensive use of IEDS was that Iraq's conventional munitions stockpiles were not secured immediately following the U.S.-led operation in 2003. Won't future operations focus on this as an important objective?

Rick Atkinson: I think that's a very valid point. There were enormous stockpiles of munitions in Iraq -- perhaps 1 million tons -- and tens of thousands of tons were pilfered, making it relatively easy to have the raw material for bombmaking. On the other hand, finding explosives of some sort -- including the homemade explosives used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City and by Iraqi insurgents in increasing quantities -- is relatively simple.


Richmond, Va.: Are the Army and Navy incorporating Electronic warfare into their core mission and definition of their battle space as part of lessons learned for the next war, or will we have to repeat this again where it takes three years for someone to ask the Navy to help by sending ECM specialists for the next war? Also, how critical has the Israeli help been for the U.S. efforts against IEDs?

Rick Atkinson: Excellent question. The Army in particular has a substantial program to develop its own electronic warfare expertise, which is supposed to relieve the Navy, in particular, of the burden in Iraq. There's some evidence that this is going slower than had been hoped, and without question you cannot hope for a young soldier to learn in a few weeks the electronic warfare skills that a Navy EWO has spent a decade perfecting.

The Israelis have been a significant player in providing advice and, in some instances, equipment. But the Israelis have a quite different tactical approach to IEDs -- leading their formations with armored bulldozers for example -- and the magnitude of the IED problem faced by the Israelis, or the British, is considerably less than that seen by coalition forces in Iraq.


Bethesda, Md.: Will you follow with a summary article or op-ed? Thanks for the well-researched and balanced series. What do I need to know as a voter? Are there systemic problems in the way we approach new opposition tactics that can be addressed, or are they just tough issues (i.e. war is hell)?

Rick Atkinson: Thanks for that. I don't have plans for a summary or op-ed. (My colleagues here at The Post would suggest that I've spilled quite enough ink at this point.) Clearly, as a citizen and a voter, seeing the IED problem within the larger framework of the war and American politico-military ambitions overseas is important. What sort of global power do you want projected from the United States? What are you willing to pay, in blood and in treasure? These are pretty fundamental questions. And yes, there is a war-is-hell quality to some of this. There have been snipers, for example, for centuries, and there are snipers today.


Overseas: Rick: Will the new vehicles designed to withstand and IED or EFP- type detonation protect those inside? Or, on the contrary, offer more protection, but not be able to withstand larger and more powerful IED's or EFP's?

And, lastly, have there been tests as to the protection offered. If so, can you discuss the results of those tests on the protection depth these new vehicles will provide?

Thanks ... part of "The Long Gray Line" ... great book ... thanks.

Rick Atkinson: The new vehicles you refer to are known as MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) and there's no doubt that they're much sturdier than, say, an up-armored Humvee. I rode in a variant called a JERRV with a bomb squad late one night in Baghdad in late July. There has been extensive testing. The truth is that if the bomb is big enough, no vehicle can withstand it. A JERRV in mid-July was hit with a 1,500-pound underbelly bomb that threw the 26-ton vehicle 60 feet through the air; the crew compartment was not penetrated, but the blast pressure killed two Navy crewmen inside.

Thanks for the kind words about "The Long Gray Line." I also appreciate the many kind words about my book that came out yesterday, "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44."


Ottawa, Canada: What is your opinion on Ionatron's LGE product and it's ability to counter IED's.

Rick Atkinson: We ran a sidebar to Part 3 of the series on Ionatron and the company's JIN efforts -- Joint IED Neutralizer. That clearly was a troubled program for a variety of reasons, and the JINs eventually sent to Afghanistan had problems. Ionatron is continuing to work the issue and has further tests scheduled this fall.


Washington: I just wanted to thank you for the recognition of the EA-6B community in the effort to counter IEDs. I represent NAS Whidbey Island in Congress and the folks at the base are very proud of their contribution. -- Rep. Rick Larsen

Rick Atkinson: Thanks, congressman. Whidbey Island has been very important in preparing electronic warfare officers to become ground combatants -- "painting them green," as the Army says. That has made a big difference, particularly in the jammer wars.


Arlington, Va.: I work on this issue of defeating IEDs in Iraq. How did you get this information for the story? Do you have any concerns your story will hurt our tasks in Iraq ?

Rick Atkinson: I spent six months interviewing military officials, defense contractors, analysts, etc., in Washington, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I asked ten senior military officers -- some active, some retired -- to review the material I'd found before we printed the stories, both for accuracy and for security issues. I feel comfortable that we've been scrupulous in not publishing information that would be harmful to U.S. troops.


Tempe, Ariz.: Do you know if the best of our private sector minds are engaged in this? As an extreme example I suppose, do you think we'd get more and better innovation if companies like Apple and Google were engaged? Not just the same old defense contractors we've been using for all these years?

Rick Atkinson: There has been a concerted effort, particularly in the past couple of years, to get the national laboratories, the big defense contractors, universities, smaller technology companies and many others to contribute ideas and technology. Gen. Abizaid, who became the Central Command commander in July 2003, subsequently asked for a "Manhattan Project-like" effort to defeat IEDs, alluding to the program that built the atomic bomb in 1945. We're not there yet, obviously, but it's not clear that a huge, technology-driven effort is what's needed.


Nashville, Tenn.: Yes many people have "worked hard" on defeating the IED, but these represent only a fraction of the resources the country could have marshaled. Is this a subject area that has been recently declassified? Why the sudden detailed interest in IEDs on the part of The Post? For example, when that G.I. asked Rumsfeld about why he had to use "hillbilly armor" in Iraq, a need for jammers wasn't even mentioned.

Rick Atkinson: Many of those involved in the counter-IED effort would suggest that the larger nation -- 300 million of us -- are not really at war, and thus the extraordinary resources of the country have not been tapped. The Post has been writing about IEDs for a long time, both within individual stories from Iraq -- I was with the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion for example -- and in separate pieces in the past four years. But we believed that the time was ripe to take a comprehensive look at the issue, to help readers understand why it has been such a difficult problem to solve, why IEDs have become the greatest killer of U.S. forces, and why $10 billion-plus doesn't seem to have stopped roadside bombs from becoming a strategic weapon.


Atlanta: The tactics of countering IEDs seems to be evolving continuously, but how about the overlying strategy? Where are we headed? It seems that the effectiveness of IEDs is because of our inability to control the countryside beyond our immediate presence.

Rick Atkinson: That's an astute comment. The IED is a tactic used by our adversaries, but the ability of the IED to become a weapon of strategic influence fits into a much larger matrix, which in fact includes the willingness of the Iraqi population to help the coalition, as well as the strategic direction of the war.


Washington: I've been reading reports that attacks, tactics and technology being used by insurgents and fighters in Iraq is being adopted by the Taliban in Afghanistan in their rekindled insurgency. What has been the primary avenue for transmitting this know-how? Internet? Video? Hands-on training?

Rick Atkinson: There does seem to be a migration from west to east in some respects. (On the other hand, it's worth noting that radio-controlled triggers to set off bombs first appeared in Afghanistan in mid-2002, long before the invasion of Iraq, although those particular RC triggers have not been seen in Iraq.)

The Internet is an extraordinarily useful tool for adversaries of the United States and its coalition partners. Videotaping IED attacks is part of the usual mode of operation for bomber cells, partly for the propaganda value. Likewise, dissemination of bombmaking technical tips, observations about weaknesses in American equipment and tactics and so forth easily are disseminated via the Web. There are also videos disseminated, for example, on how to properly place an EFP, an explosively formed penetrator.


Nashville, Tenn.: While your series was good, I thought it went a little light on exactly who screwed up to allow 1 million-plus tons of explosives to fall into enemy hands and turned into IEDs. Did anybody get fired over this? An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure.

Rick Atkinson: Thanks. That particular oversight is simply one of many oversights prior to, during and after the invasion. I can't say that anyone got fired for any of them.


Greensboro, Md.: Thank you for such an illuminating series of reports. My question is a simple one. Why didn't the military pave the most obvious IED roads with 6, 12, 15 inches of concrete ... whatever it would take? Asphalt can be hollowed out and patched; it would take many hours to do the same thing in concrete, especially with rebar. Maybe it would not complete disrupt the explosions, but it would most certainly tamp them down. And after we are finally out of this mess, the Iraqis would have roads good for decades.

Rick Atkinson: I'm not an engineer, so I can't really answer that. I can tell you that concrete production has become one of the biggest industries in Iraq, because of the extraordinary proliferation of concrete "T-barriers" used to segregate neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere, and to limit the ability of vehicle-borne bombs to penetrate markets, mosques and the like. My guess -- and it's only a guess -- is that paving the thousands of kilometers of Iraqi roads with concrete would be an overwhelming engineering challenge, and that bomber cells would find a way around that countermeasure. For example, you now sometimes find IEDs mortared into walls along roadways.


Washington: I admit I have not finished reading the articles yet, but I believe you do begin addressing the issue of ferreting out the IED makers and their networks. Doesn't this address the greater question of "asymmetrical" or "people's" warfare? How can any power defeat any group of people that is well-armed and willing to fight aggression? Didn't Mao Zedong say that the people are like the sea and guerrillas are like fish?

Rick Atkinson: A good part of today's story is about recent efforts to move "left of boom" by attacking the network. I think if you look at the current counterinsurgency approach being applied by Gen. Petraeus in Iraq today, there's a presumption that eventually you have to enlist both a competent and credible indigenous government -- on both a national and local level -- and you've got to have the support of the people to be successful. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.


Munich, Germany: I was wondering how the insurgents continually manage to get their hands on explosives. Perhaps there's lots of old artillery and mortar shells to leach the explosives from, but winning explosives from fertilizer-based urea nitrate in kiddie swimming pools does seem like a labor-intensive operation. You mentioned in one of your articles that the Quds Force has been implicated in supplying equipment and training, especially for EFPs. Are they supplying explosives, as well as the infrared technology and the copper disks for the EFPs?

Rick Atkinson: There have been accusations from the U.S. government that Iranian explosives as well as the copper "liners" and other material have been used in bombmaking. The extent to which the migration of that stuff into Iraq is supported by the hierarchy in Teheran is unclear. As for HME -- homemade explosives -- it's pretty simple to make if you're a determined bombmaker.


Rockville, Md.: Thanks for your attention to my first comment. Are there efforts to intercept detonation messages (signals) and cause early detonation of munitions? If you wrote about it, I have missed it.

Rick Atkinson: Yes. I mention in fact that there are "pre-det" efforts -- premature detonation -- that involve, among other things, EA-6B Prowler aircraft. It's very difficult technically because of frequency and coding complications. With 25,000 IED attacks in Iraq this year alone, you can see that there has been limited success.


Chicago: How has the IED affected the morale of the troops? By that I mean, is the level of frustration so high because they are getting killed on their way to the fight, not meeting the enemy in traditional combat? It would seem hard to handle, all these brave people getting killed sitting down.

Rick Atkinson: It's an issue. If you're a young soldier or Marine driving around on patrol or as part of a convoy, you are very aware of the IED threat. In the same way that sniping can affect morale and can make those who are being sniped at wary of the population and inclined to lash out, IEDs have the same effect. Few would agree that they're "sitting down" in the sense that they're not trying to actively take the fight to the enemy, but asymmetrical warfare is frustrating almost by definition.


Los Angeles: Despite all the good intentions of everyone who "worked hard," the series left me with the impression of poor management in the military, from the research and development to delivery of equipment and training in the field. The whole complex seems too slow in responding. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks for the series. I found it very informative.

Rick Atkinson: Thanks for that. My feeling is that a lot of good, smart people worked hard on this early on -- really threw themselves into it -- but that the cumbersome nature of the U.S. military-industrial construct was at odds with the need for agility. This battle is, at heart, about national agility.


Greensboro, Md.: While this may be old technology, the Brits in World War II outfitted tanks with chains in front that would beat the hell out of the ground in front of them. Was anything like this tried? I still think my earlier suggestion of building roads out of as thick a concrete as it would take to muffle the IUD's would have been the way to go. Remember some of the concrete buildings in Hiroshima that survived through "Little Boy"?

Rick Atkinson: Yeah, they're called flails, and they also were used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. More than $100 million will be spent this year on a related countermeasure -- the mine roller, which is a large, heavy cylinder that precedes a convoy in an effort to trip pressure plates or other subsurface triggers. Mine rollers, frankly, are not that difficult to defeat, but they have their uses.


Springfield, Va.: Any "sniffing" technologies tried? I thought I saw something about "sniffing" technologies being used at airports.

Rick Atkinson: In today's fourth and final part of the series you'll see that there has been some success with "sniffing" technologies, including a device called Fido, which is designed to detect explosives. Few things are as effective as a dog's nose, and there are lots of dogs in Iraq now.


Chicago: Congratulations on a superb series. At the end of Day 3, you recount how Montgomery Meigs briefed the president in 2006. The president then makes public statements linking Iran to the IEDs. Was that because of something Meigs said at the briefing, or did the president make a speculative leap or have other information?

Rick Atkinson: Thanks for your note. The White House had been following alleged Iranian links in the IED issue for a couple years before the president's statements at George Washington University in March 2006. For example, Vice President Cheney had been briefed in June 2004 on the confirmed appearance, a month earlier, of a sort of IED known as an EFP -- explosively formed penetrator -- which had a passive infrared trigger of the sort seen by Israeli troops in fighting Iranian-linked Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon.


New York: It seems that our military may be over-relying on technology to defeat IEDs once they have been implanted, rather than prevention by defeating the IED laying networks. Have we focused on the wrong target? Thanks for your series. Your books are great!

Rick Atkinson: Thanks! I think it's fair to say that there was, for years, an emphasis on defeating the device rather than attacking the network. But of course there are some things you can't not do -- if you have the ability to mitigate blast, or prevent radio waves from triggering a bomb, you feel an obligation to the troops to do whatever you can along those lines. It ate up a lot of time, money and effort.


Western Springs, Ill.: Is there any one vehicle or device in the vast civilian or military arsenals of the U.S. that can fully protect soldiers from an IED or render an IED inoperable?

Rick Atkinson: There is no vehicle that is absolutely foolproof against a big enough bomb. Some are better, and in some cases much better, than others in protecting against blast. There's considerable concern in the Pentagon that the billions being spent on the newest generation of heavily protected vehicles will be perceived by some Americans as a foolish misapplication of money when it becomes evident that even they have some vulnerability. But having been out with soldiers in one of those things, I know that they feel much safer there than in an old Humvee.


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any feeling from your sources that your sources want this information to get out to help their cause with congressional budgets and increased funding?

Rick Atkinson: You never quite know what lurks in the heart. I'm well aware that those involved in the counter-IED battle are themselves well aware of how the game is played in Washington. On the other hand, I believe that there's a conviction in some quarters that the American people must understand this issue better, because it's going to be with us for a long time.


Richmond, Va.: Do you view the IED in Iraq as analogous to the U-Boat in World War II in terms of its strategic significance?

Rick Atkinson: It's interesting that Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who is now the director of the Pentagon's counter-IED effort, wrote a good little book called "Slide Rules and Submarines" about the counter-U-boat efforts in World War II. There are some parallels, including parallels in the belated recognition in Washington of the need for first-class operational research and analysis of the sort that helped crush the U-boat threat. But the U-boat was a weapon from a single very hierarchical enemy; particularly when we began "reading their mail" by breaking German codes, it became much easier to defeat the U-boat. The nature of the network in Iraq is that it's diffuse, fragmented, unhierarchical, pluralistic, and so forth.


Washington: Has the military considered trying to start an organization among Iraqis to report bombs and bombers anonymously on a "hot line"? Perhaps they could form an organization like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers whose focus would be to gather intelligence and report it on the bombers and the networks setting the bombs. Because Iraqi citizens are killed by these bombs, we might be able to enlist their help. I'm sure this already has been thought of and probably tried, but the program would have to rely on getting the bomb hotline phone number out to the citizenry and to on assuring them that they could make the information available anonymously so the bombers could not retaliate. Given that all these expensive technological pursuits have not been too successful, maybe it will take something very simple and obvious to work against the bomber networks.

Rick Atkinson: A program quite similar to that has been put in place in Iraq. And there's a concerted effort to enlist Iraqi citizens to report bombs and bombers, sometimes with cash rewards. When U.S. troops went into Haditha a few months ago they found 140 IEDs on the west side of town, many of them reported by locals.


Rick Atkinson: Thanks very much for the excellent questions and comments. I'm gratified by the reader interest in this extraordinarily important issue. Best regards.


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