Fight Improvisation with Improvisation: Open Source Explosives

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Every war has its "signature" weapon: the machine gun in World War Two, Napalm in Vietnam, AK-47s in ethnic conflicts. I suspect the 21st Century weapon of choice will be variations on the IED (improvised explosive device). Since the war in Iraq began nearly 81,000 IED attacks have caused nearly two thirds of American deaths. According to Pentagon estimates nearly 300 IED attacks occur each month beyond the borders of Iraq and Afganistan.

Unlike the military’s million dollar weapons, IEDs use simple components and engineering. Over the past few years insurgents have focused on six techniques for detonating IEDs, including cell phones, pressure plates, and low-power radio. The important part of the term IED, and the aspect that is hardest for the US military to cope with, is improvised; these weapons may be simple technologically, but they exist at a level the US’ "lumbering miltary industrial complex" simply cannot engage with. One retired Army officer told The Washington Post:

"We believed that because the United States was the technology powerhouse, the solution to this problem would come from science. That attitude was ‘All we have to do is throw technology at it and the problem will go away.’ . . . The day we loseWeight Exercise a war it will be to guys with spears and loincloths, because they’re not tied to technology. And we’re kind of close to being there."

One marine put it more simply: "The Flinstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons."

In a four-part series by the Washington Post, "Left of Boom," Rick Atkinson explores why, with over 10 billion dollars spent on IED premption, has the US been unable to stop this new tactic. Rear Adm. Arch Macy, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center said that Americans expect technical solutions, but that in fact the real answer is not technology. He indicated that a truly effective strategy to counter IEDs will include a range of activities, some technical, most political, strategic, and social.

Central to IEDs’ efficacy is their "open source" nature. A basic deffinition of open source defines it as a creative practice that involves sharing content and fixes among users. While Wikipedia focuses on examples like collage, found-footage film, and software, the Iraqi insurgency’s IED technology can be understood under the rubric of open source. The US military has had a difficult time tracking down (or even accurately estimating the number of) bomb makers and their co-conspirators. In addition, the internet makes sharing information about techniques, strategies, and results much easier. Unlike the Pentagon’s system, which has large upfront costs and sometimes months of R&D before a technology hits the field, the IED feedback loop is much, much faster. Thus, IEDs evolve at a pace unprecedented in the state-military system.

IED technology, and US soliders response to it, evolves best in the field. While military leadership may struggle with the "answer" to IEDs, US troops in the field have devised simple ways to keep themselves safe: they mount leaf blowers on the front of their tanks, use silly string to find trip-wires, and attach extra lights to their Humvees. Rather than respond to an IED with a mutli-million dollar and state-of-the-art computer system, these strategies are equally improvised and unique to the situation in Iraq. Although the Post’s article does not discuss it, I imagine that US soldiers also take advantage of social networks and the internet to share these innovations to their peers.

The best solution may be to fight improvisation with improvisation.

Link to Washington Post’s "Left of Boom" series.