Countering the IED Threat

15 May 2009

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have become the most serious threat to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Of the 12 Canadians who have died in Afghanistan so far this year, 11 were killed by IEDs. Of the 30 killed as a result of enemy action in 2008, 25 were the due to IEDs and roadside bombs. During 2006’s Operation Medusa, the Canadian-led battle against 1,500 entrenched Taliban fighters, “we lost half [of our casualties] to combat and the other half to IEDs,” says Colonel Omer Lavoie. During Medusa, Colonel Lavoie was Commanding Officer of 1 RCR Battle Group.

Worse yet, IED usage is on the rise in Afghanistan. According to the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), IED attacks in Afghanistan increased 50% in 2008 compared to 2007. JIEDDO is the U.S. military body spearheading that country’s counter-IED efforts. Meanwhile, Joint Task Force Paladin (JTFP), the U.S. counter-IED unit in Bagram, Afghanistan, expects total bomb attacks to increase 50% again this year; potentially up to 5,700 compared to 3,800 in 2008. Attacks, JTFP commander Colonel Jeffrey Jarkowsky predicted to the Associated Press (May 16, 2009), “will ramp up in the summer to where it will be an increase of maybe 60% one month and will average out to 50%.”

February 2009 – Munitions discovered as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are off-loaded for disposal by the Counter-IED team at Tarnak Farms, just outside Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The C-IED team  is responsible for responding, disarming and handling of ­discovered IEDs. The team uses their expertise and training to identify, safely disarm and then gather the explosives for future disposal. CF Photo: MCpl Robert Bottrill

Canada’s Counter-IED Strategy: The Big Picture
IEDs are well-suited to the guerilla-style war of attrition that the Taliban are fighting against NATO forces. This is a long-term war where the apparent strategy is to exhaust the Allies’ willingness to keep taking casualties. Should Western public opinion cause NATO forces to be withdrawn, the Taliban will have won. It is in this context that the Canadian Forces are doing what they can to counter IEDs now, before the public loses its nerve.

Established to spearhead Canada’s response to the IED threat, the Counter-IED Task Force is the CF’s prime weapon in what could arguable be described, in part, as a public relations battle. Although saving military and civilian lives is paramount to the task force’s work, “public support is a large reason why General Hillier signed off on this in the first place,” says Colonel Lavoie, who is now in charge of the C-IED Task Force. In official CF parlance, its mission is to act “as the strategic focal point for counter-IED issues within the CF. This CF capability, under Army leadership, coordinates strategic effects designed to attack the IED network, develop CF capability to defeat IEDs, and provides advice on preparing the force to operate in an IED environment, in order to protect the force and to ensure mission success.”

According to Colonel Lavoie, it is not enough to take out the people who plant the bombs and the low-level insurgents working directly with them – there will always be more to take their place. Back in theatre, he “was all for killing the guys as they were putting them [IEDs] in, and sometimes did,” he remembers. In a telephone interview, he tells FrontLine Defence that he now understand that countering the IED threat effectively requires attacking “left of boom.” This means preventing such attacks in the first place, by identifying “the builders, the planners and the financiers at the highest level. It also means finding the highest level commanders where possible and taking them out; disrupting the supply of materials for IEDs, and doing whatever it takes to keep them from ever making it to the field.”

A prime example of Left of Boom strategy took place in January 2009, under Operation Shahi Tandar (Royal Thunder): Canadian, British and Afghan troops seized 138 detonators meant for IEDs. This equals 138 IEDs not made. Also captured were 38 pressure plates, timing devices, homemade explosives, and other IED components.

Of course, it is impossible to prevent all IED attacks. In acknowledgment of this fact, the CF has formed its own forensics team to examine IED bombing sites for clues (You can think of this unit as ‘CSI: Kandahar’). Asked about their operations, Colonel Lavoie is tight-lipped. He doesn’t want to give away any details, for fear that doing so will educate the enemy.

“One thing is certain,” says Roger Davies, VP Business Development with Allen-Vanguard in Ottawa, “Canadians are doing more to monitor successful attacks that the enemy are mounting, and to come up with different policies and procedures.” Detonation scenes are being forensically investigated to determine what the bomb was made of, who might have made it, and – with the help of intelligence support – where they are and how they might be apprehended. It also means that the CF is paying close attention to Taliban technology and tactics, and adjusting CF field tactics accordingly.

This is the equation Colonel Lavoie uses to explain Canada’s counter-IED response. The “60” refers to “world class training and world class tactics” for Canada’s troops. Training and tactics have both been refocused to dig into the IED threat; not just in identifying such bombs, but preventing their manufacture and use. This is a big change from the past, when IEDs were used during CF training exercise to shake troops up, rather than teach them useful skills. “We called it IED confetti,” he says. “IEDs were strewn throughout the battle space and used to achieve an effect.”

“30” refers to improved equipment in the field. This encompasses more rugged troop transports such as the RG31 Nyala, plus mine detection and disposal vehicles in theatre; the deployment of CH146 Griffon and CH147 Chinook helicopters to reduce ground travel requirements; and the use of new technology, such as Allen-Vanguard’s Mk2 remotely-controlled bomb disposal robots. It also includes new purchases, such as the $12.5 million Thales Canada contract to acquire the Deployable Integrated Sensors for CompoUnd Security (DISCUS) intruder detection system. DISCUS uses a ground-based surveillance radar to detect movement around a compound or area of observation. When movement is detected, DISCUS displays the information on a command and control screen; detailing the target’s exact position and any automatic identification.

“The DISCUS system has been operationally deployed by NATO forces Afghanistan since 2006,” says Guy Baruchel, President of Thales Canada. “This system includes cartography, radar management and camera cueing and control capabilities that will enable the early detection of intruders, and provide critical information of the potential threat.”

“10” refers to the unavoidable dangers of facing IEDs in person. “It may sound ­callous, but that’s just the risk of the job,” says Colonel Lavoie. “I wish I could say we could get this down to 0%, but we can’t. That’s the reality of being a soldier.” True, but the improvements offered by the “60” and “30” elements of the 60:30:10 equation are intended to make the final 10% less dangerous than before. For Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan, this should offer some comfort.

Improving the Odds
The strategy and tactics being devised by the Counter-IED Task Force proves that the CF is doing something concrete about this threat. The improved training and kit being provided to our troops should improve their chances of survival in the field.

An effective counter-IED strategy can reduce the vulnerability of NATO forces by making such attacks harder to stage and more survivable when they do occur. As well, a successful counter-IED campaign can boost morale at the field and at home – depriving the Taliban of the public relations victory they are trying to achieve. It is to this end that Canada’s counter-IED efforts, and the efforts of it NATO partners in Afghanistan, are ultimately directed.

That said, the very ease in which IED attacks can be staged makes their elimination unlikely. The most NATO troops can hope to do is to minimize their occurrence, and their impact.

The larger question, and one that is beyond the task force’s mission, is the greater challenge of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan; particularly when alleged corruption and abuse by the Karzai government is reportedly driving some Afghans back to the Taliban.

This problem is beyond the scope of this article, and indeed could occupy an entire issue of FrontLine Defence. But it is worth noting, because Afghan dissatisfaction with the Karzai regime does play into the Taliban’s hands, making the task of counter-insurgency more difficult. At the end of the day, it’s clear that deficiencies in governance increases the chances that more IEDs will be deployed this year, as JTFP’s Colonel Jarkowsky predicts.

However, Col Omer Lavoie sees some “good news” in this disturbing trend. He views the fact that “IEDs have gone up 350% since 2006” as proving counter-IED tactics are working, because the Taliban needs to make this increase “to achieve the same casualties.” One reason for the
increase is that NATO forces are now finding “50-60% of IEDs before they ever detonate,” Colonel Lavoie adds. With improved training, detection and forensic investigation, he hopes to make this percentage much, much higher – forcing the Taliban to devote even more resources to IEDs, while achieving far less success.

If this happens, then the CF will be able to claim that Canada is winning the war on IEDs. Still, the real outcome will likely be decided by the number of coffins returning home, and the public’s reaction to this parade of national sacrifice.
James Careless is a freelance defence writer based in Ottawa.
© 2009 FrontLine Defence