Although most IED attacks in Iraq targeted vehicles, that may change in future conflicts. (Defense Department)
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A Marine places a mock explosive during counter-Improvised Explosive Device training. Bad guys around the world have taken note of the effectiveness of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Cpl. G.P. Ingersoll/Marine Corps)
Marines with 1st EOD Company, 7th Engineer Support Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., won’t have much to do when they get to Afghanistan later this month, but that doesn’t mean the improvised explosive device has left the battlefield.
“Things have slowed down for us quite a bit,” wrote Capt. Joseph Hockett, the EOD company commander under Combat Logistics Battalion 7 in Afghanistan, in an e-mail to Marine Corps Times. “The Afghan’s IED defeat capability has grown along with their ability to provide security for the country. This has allowed them to take over a large portion of the mission. As the Afghans continue to succeed, our mission has gotten smaller.”
While operational tempo in Afghanistan winds down, the continued global threat IEDs pose cannot be ignored, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven Williams, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the Marine detachment at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
“Bottom line is this: Anywhere there is some disgruntled person or group of persons willing to resort to violence to achieve their ends, there is an IED threat,” he said. “I have been saying it for years. We have seen the future of warfare and it’s the IED. Why? Because it works, and everybody knows it works. IED’s alter the way we think, plan and execute. IEDs tie up money, resources and manpower,” he added.
Bad guys around the globe have taken note of the way IEDs shaped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by inflicting terrifying casualties with minimal risk or cost to insurgents.
The threat could be even greater in environments where Marines will find themselves deploying with greater frequency in a post-Afghanistan operating environment.
“The luxury of Iraq and Afghanistan was the openness,” Williams said. “Often times the option of going around the IED was available, but not always.”
In other topographies, the jungle for example, going around is not viable because of dense foliage surrounding trails.
“Choke points and placing IEDs where people and vehicles have to go is always inviting to the enemy,” Williams said. “The issue with a jungle environment is the entire path ... is a choke point and options of travel are very limited.”
With the Corps refocusing on tropical climes of the Asia-Pacific region, it isn’t far-fetched that Marines could find themselves facing IEDs in a jungle environment. They already serve as advisers in the Philippines where religious fundamentalists like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front employ IEDs. The Philippines and surrounding area is the region where IEDs pose the greatest future threat.
“IEDs have been a problem in the Philippines for quite some time, but hardly anybody talks about it outside that area,” Williams said.
But, the threat will not be contained in any one theater and could be seen in places like Latin America, Williams said. Marines there are ramping up their advisory and training role, helping friendly nations combat narcotics traffickers and guerillas everywhere from Mexico to Columbia. That could put them in closer proximity to battlefield threats there, too.
Even the home front isn’t safe any longer. Williams said common perception is that the future IED threat will be least relevant in developed nations.
“But, in my opinion that is naive thinking. Ask the people of Atlanta, Oklahoma City, New York and Boston,” he said.
Not all IEDs will look the same, however. Marines could encounter unique triggering mechanisms or setups in regions other than the Middle East or Central Asia. But the biggest next-generation threat would be the incorporation of chemical, biological or radiological components into an IED. The Marine Corps began preparing for the introduction of those threats last fall with expanded training for 1st EOD, now in Afghanistan.
Biological threats are unlikely because live organisms would be destroyed in the heat of a bomb blast. In Iraq, a few failed attempts were made to use industrial chemicals like chlorine to poison troops.
It is only a matter of time, however, before chemical or radiological components are successfully incorporated into an IED on the battlefield, Steven Bucci, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, told Marine Corps Times this summer.
Bucci, a retired Army Special Forces officer said the failed attempts in Iraq show a willingness, if not yet the ability, to incorporate devastating components into IEDs. An IED with weapons of mass destruction components would likely incorporate chemical agents, he said. While chemical weapons are difficult to manufacture and weaponize, much of the work is done if insurgents obtain chemical weapons — like artillery shells — from an unsecured national stockpile, in Syria for example. Insurgents could also use radiological material to create a “dirty bomb” IED.
In either case, however, the weapons would not be game changers, Bucci and Williams said. While they would be devastating, their effect would be localized. That is not to dismiss the psychological impact they would have on troops in the fight, however.
Because IEDs are likely to become an ubiquitous weapon, Williams said that as Afghanistan winds down, the most important task is to convince leaders that the IED threat will remain serious and relevant. He worries most that the military’s hard-won counter-IED expertise — earned in blood during the past 13 years at war — could atrophy if budgets, training and manpower are cut too much.
“I’m not concerned with the prominence of our role in future operations. No matter where those operations are to take place, EOD will be in the thick of it because of the threat,” Williams said. “But what do we in the meantime? It is critical that we remain relevant and engaged until that time comes.
“It is my opinion that one of the biggest problems with our military is that we tend to forget critical lessons learned. We’re great at dealing with traditional threats, as we should be, but we’re also really good at pushing lesser threats to the side. They aren’t a problem until they’re a problem. We forget about them until they punch us in the face.
“It would be a mistake to push the IED threat off to side that way, they need to be added to the traditional threats.”