How the IED Won: Dispelling the Myth of Tactical Success and Innovation

May 1, 2017

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The U.S. military seems to have settled on the narrative that it won every tactical engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this view, failures of strategy and the challenges of nation-building proved the undoing of coalition counter-insurgency efforts in each conflict. Even the most critical accounts of U.S. military performance in the wars, like Lt Gen. (ret.) Bolger’s Why We Lost, emphasize American “tactical excellence” in the campaigns. Such a conclusion, however, seems to equate tactics with firefights and ignores the U.S. military’s failure to meet its objectives to counter the enemy’s weapon of choice — the improvised explosive device (IED).

As roadside bombs began to cause a majority of U.S. casualties, counter-IED efforts sought to defeat the IED’s strategic influence. Significant U.S. military investment and innovation to counter IEDs succeeded in improving the odds for American forces in any single engagement with the devices. At scale, however, these innovations imposed higher costs on U.S. forces even as the bombs got cheaper. And while these innovations reduced risk to U.S. forces, they did not change the way in which the devices challenged military objectives in the conflicts.  In a protracted fight in IED-laden ground, the initiative remains with the bomb builder.

As an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer charged with executing on counter-IED objectives, and after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have tried to examine what might be learned from this fight and to consider: How successful was the U.S. military against the IED? What worked and what did not? And what do the lessons of the counter-IED fight in Iraq and Afghanistan mean as improvised threats to U.S. military operations continue to diversify and proliferate?

The IED’s Impact

No other weapon shaped the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan like the IED. It required that troops charged with enhancing population security confine themselves to massive, armored vehicles and travel at high rates of speed or plow through farmers’ fields to avoid roads entirely. It slowed dismounted troops forced to sweep with metal detectors and divert around empty intersections. It partitioned Baghdad with 12-foot high concrete walls and caused a fertilizer shortage for farmers in Afghanistan. It was the only insurgent weapon that could cause mass civilian casualties, undermining local governance, the credibility of counter-insurgent efforts, and ensuring a steady stream of atrocities — of the horrors of intervention — could be broadcast globally.

Whether you measure in blood or treasure, the IED also proved the costliest feature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for American forces. 60 percent of all American fatalities in Iraq and half of all American fatalities in Afghanistan, more than 3,500 in total, were caused by IEDs. The same proportion holds for Americans who were wounded, totaling more than 30,000 service members. When history looks back on these wars, the dominant images will be of the aftermath of these improvised bombs, of their devastating effects on a Baghdad market or of veteran and Afghan amputees.

Among the insurgent’s standard complement of arms — bullets, mortars, grenades — the IED provides unique advantages. The IED, after all, is a weapon that waits. It does not require the insurgent to expose himself to employ it, balancing risk in favor of the bomber. Unlike with a firefight, when troops take on a roadside bomb, the best possible outcome is to return to the status quo ante. There is no opportunity to gain the initiative and take the fight to the enemy. Even a high rate of success in finding and clearing roadside bombs leaves the counter-insurgent at a cost and risk disadvantage over time. This imbalance makes the IED, once emplaced, an asymmetric weapon — a non-standard method where a weaker opponent gains considerable advantage. The IED enabled the insurgent to target U.S. military strategy as much as it did U.S. forces. It mitigated U.S. advantages in resources, technology, and ground combat while attacking its credibility and, therefore, the sustainability of its resource and risk investment in the conflicts.

The Counter-IED Fight

The IED’s impact demanded significant effort from the U.S. military and aggressive counter-IED objectives. In 2006, the Department of Defense established the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to oversee all its counter-IED efforts. JIEDDO’s lofty mission was to defeat IEDs “as weapons of strategic influence.” This never meant eliminating IEDs entirely, but rather raising the cost and risk of IED use by insurgents to such a level that the enemy “would move on to something else,” according to former JIEDDO Director Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz.

Six years later, as American troops were closing up shop in Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan was drawing down, a Government Accountability Office report noted that JIEDDO had not yet developed “strategic, outcome-related goals” for its counter-IED mission. Three outcome-related questions come to mind, though, to evaluate counter-IED efforts against JIEDDO’s mission statement. First, had insurgents’ cost and risk advantage in employing the devices diminished over time? Second, did IED casualty rates drop more quickly for U.S. forces than casualty rates overall? Third, how might changes to U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan have been influenced by the IED? Each question can be examined in the context of the three counter-IED lines of operation in U.S. doctrine. First, “defeat the device” by finding, clearing, and protecting against it. Second, “attack the network” that financed, built, and emplaced it, through strikes, raids, detentions, and control over material components. Third, “train the force,” to prepare friendly forces to operate successfully in IED-laden terrain.

The Slow Bleed

Efforts to find, clear, and defend against IEDs showed modest gains over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both theaters, the “find and clear” rate improved from 40 percent in the earliest months of the wars to 60 percent by the end of 2011. In Iraq, improved force protection measures, including armor and electronic jammers for radio-controlled IEDs, also quadrupled the number of IED attacks required to cause a casualty, from five to 20. Total IED attacks also fell precipitously beginning in June 2007, six months into a 15 percent increase in U.S. troop numbers during the surge. That same month also marked the beginning of the “Awakening” as Sunni tribesmen increasingly began working with U.S. forces against the insurgency. As a result, IED casualties dropped dramatically even before coalition troop numbers fell similarly. In Iraq, key technical innovations made gains against the IED, but the tide turned only when gains were made against the insurgency itself.

Gains in Afghanistan came much later, however, and in a different form. Through 2010, the IED was winning — the number of attacks required to cause a casualty actually fell from 14 to 11. Total IED casualties spiked thereafter, as a surge of U.S. forces implemented a counter-insurgency strategy that required more dismounted patrols among the Afghan population. As the surge wound down and Afghan forces were placed in the lead in 2012, coalition IED casualties dropped from 60 to 40 percent of total casualties. IED attacks against Afghan forces surged that same year, however, increasing 124 percent. Coalition IED casualties continued to recede as additional stress was placed on Afghan forces. Since 2012, overall attack levels have remained high, varying more with the seasons than with the passing years. In Afghanistan, adaptation reduced risk to coalition troops rather than innovation. Placing local security forces in the lead, and removing coalition forces, reduced the IED threat more than innovative means of addressing the devices.

What Worked

The U.S. military was able to achieve modest gains against the IED by innovating its way toward improved detection, disablement, and protection against the bombs. The 50 percent increase in the find and clear rate, though, was far from enough to make insurgents consider abandoning the devices. When a $265 device can disable a $525,000 armored vehicle, quadrupling the number of bombs required to be effective does not turn cost and risk in favor of the counter-insurgent. Despite efforts to control access to IED components, the devices actually got cheaper over the course of the wars even as armor, electronic jammers, and mine detectors became more expensive. Innovation saved lives and improved freedom of maneuver, but barely dented the IED’s asymmetric advantage.

Counter-IED efforts had more success in increasing risk to insurgents. In the 18 months in Iraq coinciding with the surge and the Awakening, JIEDDO surged support to targeting bomb-building networks, combining biometrics taken from the devices themselves with all-source intelligence to enable operations that killed or captured 691 “high-value terrorists.” It is difficult to disaggregate the impacts of JIEDDO’s “attack the network” efforts from those of the surge and the Awakening overall, but it can at least be said that these operations had the advantage of engaging the enemy through precision strikes and raids, where U.S. troops held the tactical advantage.

The turning point against IED casualties came in 2008 in Iraq and 2013 in Afghanistan. In both cases, the U.S. military’s new counter-insurgency doctrine has proved correct: The change in relationship between U.S. troops and the local population made the greatest difference in overall security conditions, including with the IED. In Iraq, these attacks receded as violence dropped overall. In Afghanistan, however, risk to U.S. forces waned only as it was traded for risk to Afghan forces. In both cases, the U.S. military was no more successful against IEDs than it was against the insurgency itself. “Train the force” efforts proved critical to the extent that they replaced U.S. manpower with host nation security forces.

The IED’s Enduring Appeal

Current U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria seem to have accounted for the persistent strategic influence of the IED. Favorable outcomes in each theater are unlikely on timelines over which troop-intensive counter-insurgency can be sustained. So the U.S. military has adapted its approach, focusing on building partner capacity, intelligence saturation, precision strikes, and raids — and a light footprint on bomb-laden ground. This is certainly not only because of the IED, but the devices remain a necessary part of the strategic calculus.

Insurgents have moved on from the IED, though, just not in the way JIEDDO may have intended. Far from being defeated, asymmetric threats like the IED are proliferating and diversifying. Over the last year, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has begun producing improvised munitions on a near industrial scale. The group has used hobby drones fitted with grenades and employed a crude form of mustard agent in improvised mortars and rockets.  The same drone technique has been observed in eastern Ukraine and the Assad regime has improvised air-dropped barrel bombs with explosive and lethal chlorine fills.

The IED has a long history. It was Guy Fawkes’ tool of strategic influence in 1605. More recently, though, the ubiquity of technical knowledge and the collapsing cost of technology have made the IED a readily accessible and reproducible weapon of nearly infinite variety. Given the vertical adoption rate of new consumer electronics, each new programmable circuit board, hobby robot, and sensor offers new opportunities for motivated amateurs to solder together weapons of strategic influence on the battlefield. As a result, improvised threats have outgrown the term IED. They have become their own dimension of modern warfare — an accelerating, localized arms race of novel weapons systems seeking asymmetric advantage, and strategic influence, in gray zone conflicts globally.

Adapting to Entropy

We call it something else, but JIEDDO still exists today. Rather than aiming to defeat the strategic influence of the IED, the new Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO) now enables the Department of Defense “to prepare for and adapt to battlefield surprise.” This new and more modest mission statement accepts both the IED’s enduring appeal in the face of its efforts and the new entropy of improvised threats. Gone is the expectation that countering these threats will be decisive. Instead, success will come through managing risk — through preparedness for improvised threats’ costs and risks and an accounting of their potential impact to military objectives. For the U.S. military, the ambiguity and patience required by this approach will not come easy. This model is anathema to its affinity to mass effort against a center of gravity until a culminating point is reached. Now, these centers of gravity are more numerous, more diverse, and emerging more rapidly.

The growing diversity of improvised threats requires a new mechanism for risk and mission analysis. This analysis should substitute defeating “strategic influence” with distinct, achievable, and outcome-based objectives based on a technical and tactical characterization of new threats. Such analysis is critical to informing how responses are prioritized, operational approaches developed, and resources aligned against threats of varying consequence and construction.

Current approaches to global pandemic may offer some conceptual parallels for risk analysis in localized arms races. First, the analysis should ask how infectious the new threat might be — how much risk and disruption could it cause? Second, how contagious might it be — how likely is it to spread and how fast? Third, how curable is it? Are there readily deployable countermeasures? Could they be developed on a relevant timeline? Can decisive action be taken against the threat in this location, through targeting of critical components like precursor materials or production equipment? Alternatively, will tactics and operations have to be adapted to account for its continued use? As with infectious disease, responses to new improvised threats must start quickly and be tailored, scaled, and swarmed against the outbreak. JIDO’s mission and lines of operation were a start, but it’s time to increase the rigor of mission planning and execution against improvised threats.

It is also time that the military services internalize what has been learned in this threat space, to a large extent by JIDO’s decade-long swarming of this problem. In order to understand the networks that produce these threats and inform innovation and adaptation against them, specialized intelligence resources will be required close to these new weapons systems and the friendly forces encountering them. Second, requirements for new countermeasures must be generated close to the battlefield and supported with timely, flexible resourcing. At times, this may require engineering, rapid prototyping, and testing capabilities closer to the fight. The U.S. military can no longer afford a homogenously equipped force when fighting localized arms races.

The future portends an even more diverse and challenging set of improvised threats. Unmanned aerial systems have added a vertical dimension to the longstanding IED threat far easier to use and reuse than rockets and mortars. Additive manufacturing now challenges control regimes for more sophisticated weapons components. The rise of synthetic biology has placed the capability to engineer novel pathogens in the hands of minimally trained hobbyists. The urgency of the IED threat to U.S. forces has abated, but the circumstances that made the improvised weapon a strategic challenge persist. The current fight requires the U.S. military adapt and win amid entropy.


LCDR Jason Shell, U.S. Navy, is an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer who has completed multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of counter-IED objectives since 2010. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government

Image: U.S. Army

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