IEDs and the futility of increased armor
By James Lochbaum
Article ID: 1343
For the United States, there is probably no other weapon as symbolic of today’s conflicts as the Improvised Explosive Device, or IED. Up until 2007, IEDs were responsible for 63% of U.S. casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom (1). They have also been implemented by belligerents in Afghanistan, a place previously devoid of these weapons.
To counter IEDs, the U.S. and other coalition forces have turned to traditional Third Generation Warfare strategies. New Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (or MRAPs) are designed and put into production, existing vehicles are upgraded with additional armor plating, troops are issued more ballistic vests and trauma plates, and electronic jammers are installed. While training and doctrine have been altered, the response to these devices has mainly been to field more heavily armored hardware.
This approach seems to work. In 2004, when specially-designed MRAPs were first used by the U.S. Marine Corps, they reported no casualties in over 300 IED attacks involving the new vehicles (2). But, the success of this “up-armor” approach has been severely distorted. It is seen as a strategy for victory, when really it only treats a symptom of the conflicts we face.
The IEDs are a symptom – and not the root cause – of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. An IED is simply a way for an insurgent or guerilla to attack a mechanized, first-world military. U.S. and NATO forces are vulnerable to IED attacks because of their mechanized nature, and their heavy logistics footprints. (A logistics footprint refers to the amount of logistic support required in proportion to the size of the actual fighting force.)
This is a vulnerability for developed nations involved in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. Opponents in these types of conflicts rarely attack the “warfighter” directly. For example, the U.S. fields one of the world’s most effective Main Battle tanks, the M1 Abrams. An insurgent in Iraq or Afghanistan will have a hard time matching the firepower or armor that an Abrams brings to the fight, although an alarming number of tanks are being taken out of action by IEDs (4).
A clever opponent can neutralize the tank’s combat power by defeating its logistics footprint. How? The Abrams burns about 12 gallons of fuel an hour just with the engine idling. When moving, its gas mileage is measured in feet, not miles (3). For a company of tanks to conduct operations (that’s about 12 tanks), they must be supplied with at least 144 gallons of fuel per hour just to idle. Fuel must obviously be transported to the same place as the tanks.
Fuel is just one resource required by the tank. We haven’t even mentioned spare parts, ammunition, lodgings and supplies for the crew.
An opponent that seeks to neutralize the tank’s combat effectiveness should strike its fuel supply (or any one of a dozen other logistics trains that delivers necessary supplies). This is where the “up-armor” doctrine begins to surface. As enemies attack the logistics train, the U.S. reaction has been to consistently apply more armor and more defensive systems to existing equipment, and to implement new, heavily armored vehicles. What has never taken place is a good hard look at what those logistics vehicles are delivering and why they are needed.
Let’s go back to the example of the tank. The Abrams Main Battle Tank has incredibly tough armor, a powerful main gun (105/120mm), and sophisticated optics and gear that allows it to do all kinds of ridiculous things that would have made it a Soviet General’s nightmare. But, the ability to engage targets with a gyroscopically stabilized main gun while moving isn’t as effective when those targets are blending with the local population. This particular tank has severe limitations in the battle-spaces in which it’s currently employed. Yet, despite this, the U.S. Army deployed over 1,100 of the vehicles in Operation Iraqi Freedom (4). This actually causes more casualties – vehicles must be used to transport supplies to the tanks, putting more troops in harm’s way.
Armored vehicles have another severe limitation that makes them ill-suited to counter-insurgency operations: the lack of mobility. In creating a vehicle with enough armor to resist IEDs, we have inadvertently created a vehicle that can only travel in areas where those IEDs are most likely to be encountered. This smacks of attrition, a strategy that the U.S. military establishment ostensibly condemns, especially in counter-insurgencies. Furthermore, the MRAP vehicles were designed with the Iraq conflict in mind. Iraq, a mostly flat country with a very urban enemy, is crisscrossed by roads through most of its populated areas. Contrast to Afghanistan, which has only one major road, and in the many mountainous areas, there are no developed surfaces to travel on. That terrain is a nightmare for top-heavy MRAP vehicles.
The bases that are maintained in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have huge logistical foot-prints (5). Many of these bases, such as Camp Ramadi in Iraq and Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, have restaurants such as Pizza-Hut and Subway. This puts a needless tax on the logistics train, requiring more convoys and giving the enemy more chances to attack.
Heavy armored vehicles are not always a bad thing. There is something about heavy armor and big guns that makes an enemy think twice about attacking one’s forces. But, they can easily become liabilities in counter-insurgency operations. They do have their uses, but the U.S. military has developed an almost exclusive reliance on these vehicles. What needs to be pursued more actively are lighter, more mobile and longer range vehicles; a more streamlined logistics system (no more Pizza-Huts and Subways for starters), and equipment with smaller logistics foot-prints.
Armor may help protect troops from weapons like IEDs, but it is useless if it makes them more likely to be attacked by those weapons in the first place.
(1) “More Attacks, Mounting Casualties“, The Washington Post. September 30, 2007.
(2) “The Truck the Pentagon Wants and the Firm that Makes it“, Peter Eisler. USA Today. October 2, 2007.
(3) Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org).
(4) “Tanks Take a Beating in Iraq“, Steven Komarow. USA Today. March 29, 2005.
(5) “Iraq Facilities“, GlobalSecurity.org. This provides a very interesting overview of the massive logistics effort put into Iraq during the early phases of the war.
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