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Counter-IED: A pervasive, global threat still remains

Today we are in an era of persistent conflict where IEDs will be a condition of future battlefields; therefore, Counter-IED is not and cannot be the business solely of C-IED specialists.  Counter-IED is an international, joint, interagency, combined armed forces responsibility requiring intelligence support and broad coalition and multinational cooperation.”

— Position Statement on the Enduring Threat of the Improvised Explosive

Afghanistan was bloody and many would like to forget it. But beyond Afghanistan, we should not be fooled into believing the next conflict will not be so messy and improvised bombs will not continue to be a major threat. As I write, over the past two days, outside Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been at least 11 bomb attacks in six countries leaving 26 dead and 96 injured; this is an average day of improvised explosive incidents.

Homemade bombs have likely been around since the Chinese invention of black powder was militarized by Europeans 700 years ago. From Guy Fawkes’ exploits beneath the English Parliament in 1605, bombs used to derail thousands of German trains during World War Two, booby traps in Vietnam that with mines caused over 33 percent of American causalities, to pipe bombs in Northern Ireland, improvised explosive devices (IED) continue to be a threat.

What is nonetheless different today is that the improvised explosive threat is globally pervasive, persistent, and growing as asymmetric conflict blurs borders in an era of persistent social, political, and religious ideological conflict. The IED has gone from being a peripheral concern to a predominant threat to Canada and its citizens, and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) deployed on operations.

Like the battle against U-boats during the Second World War, this threat requires a cross-government overmatch to make it less relevant.

This is not fully appreciated within Canada and the CAF, and there is a belief by some that the explosive threat ended with the termination of Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011. Consequently, it is possible Canada’s significant counter explosive threat (CET) capability, based on knowledge, experience, training, awareness, technology and equipment will not be fully institutionalized, but lost under the weight of fiscal pressure. Others believe existing government, agency, and departmental “silos of excellence” are sufficient to deal with the challenge – they too are wrong.

Continued, and even greater, interdepartmental and agency effort is required to ensure Canada maintains and improves its CET capability to be ready for risks prevalent today – and those “around the corner.” It should examine our experience in Afghanistan; the growing risks and threats at home and abroad; nefarious state and non-state actors and the adaptable networks supporting them; the role of the new CAF Joint Counter Explosive Threat Task Force (JCET TF) (formally known as the CIED TF); and what needs to be done to ensure future strategic military response options are unconstrained by the improvised explosive threat, our own forces are protected, and their tactical freedom of action and movement are preserved.

Without an operational imperative and growing fiscal constraint, maintaining the capability will be thorny, however, unless there is a paradigm shift in current thinking and recognition that the improvised explosives and networks that employ them are mainstays of modern conflict.

 

Afghanistan and IED fatigue

Improvised explosives are homemade bombs. They can be small or big, crude or sophisticated, “dirty” (chemical, biological, radioactive, or nuclear) or “clean” (just explosives and shrapnel). A new trend is “massive” vehicle borne IEDs – any bomb over 30,000 pounds. IEDs can contain military, commercial, or homemade explosives, and can be detonated by victims, manually, by remote control, automatically with timers, or by suicide bombers. They can be surgical or indiscriminate, contained in shoes, underwear, carcasses, pots, pipes, post boxes, buildings, ships, planes, trains, and automobiles, or even implanted beneath the skin. Their destructive use against civilian and military targets is only limited by imagination.

Out of necessity, the CAF developed an ad hoc, albeit world class, CET capability. Beginning in April 2006, after the CAF deployed back to Kandahar and four soldiers were killed in a light un-armoured vehicle, Canada experienced an increasing improvised explosive threat at a level never before witnessed. At least 17 soldiers were killed in suicide blasts or by roadside bombs that year, and as a result of the carnage, in 2007 the CAF created the C-IED TF with a mandate to “take a holistic approach…to raise our standard of preparedness to better battle IEDs and…defeat the IED network by synchronizing and integrating capabilities from the tactical to the strategic level.” 1

The C-IED TF – now the JCET TF – served as a focal point for this capability; by the end of the conflict it was recognized as a global leader in the C-IED field. The effort likely saved many lives, but by the end of the war, 70 percent of CAF casualties – and 83 percent of combat casualties – were still caused by IEDs.2  

Nonetheless, with the end of CAF combat operations in 2011 and the training mission in 2014, the effort to institutionalize knowledge, experience and capability built over 10 years of combat is at risk from those who do not appreciate the enduring and growing nature of the threat. The IED is seen by many to be intrinsically tied to our experience in Afghanistan – there is IED fatigue, or amnesia.

After Afghanistan there is also a perception that having left the region, there is no requirement to train for operations in a high improvised explosive threat environment. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the likely future operating environment, which will invariably include bombs.  Yet the capability is fragile. Former Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, recognizing its importance, said that it, amongst other capabilities, was now “on life support” and required continued funding. 3

In this climate, however, there are some in the CAF who question the requirement to even maintain the capability, and others who “want to get back to the basics” in individual and collective training with little to no regard for the explosive threat or a contemporary operating environment that has evolved since the pre-Iraq and Afghanistan era. Preparing for the “last war” is not being espoused here, but since the CAF first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, the threat landscape looks vastly different and we ought to prepare for this contemporary environment, one where the explosive threat is omnipresent.

 

Strategic context

The CAF experience with IEDs is principally but not entirely limited to Afghanistan. The deduction from this should not be that our experience there was a one-off event. Due to recent conflict, there is a proliferation of improvised explosive expertise. Homemade bomb components – including explosive material – are cheap and can be purchased locally. They are lethal and extremely effective, and can be constructed by following recipes on the internet. Moreover, the effects of their tactical use can be strategic and disproportional, creating perceptions of insecurity, and weakening national resolve. To put this in perspective, the 1995 saran gas attack on the Tokyo subway cost millions of dollars and killed only 12; the attack on the Madrid commuter system cost a few thousands dollars and killed 191, and contributed to a change in the Spanish government and a pullout of Spanish Forces from Iraq.

Domestically, Canada is not immune to the improvised explosive threat. In 2013 there were at least 144 improvised explosive incidents in Canada, including 17 bombings and the recovery of 26 IEDs or potential IEDs.4

 

Today, much different from pre-Iraq conflicts where artillery and direct fire caused the majority of casualties, improvised explosives are often the greatest cause of casualties – military and civilian – in regions of persistent conflict. This will not likely change in the foreseeable future. These devices are clearly a mainstay of conflict; they are the asymmetric weapon of choice by a spectrum of non-state actors. They offer adversaries – whether tactically defeated, or just smaller, and more poorly equipped and trained – a proven way to fight us on more even ground.

Moreover, potential conventional adversaries, notably Iran and North Korea,5 have noted the clear disruptive success of IEDs, which immobilized unprepared forces in Afghanistan, and are mass producing IED components to “conventionalize” their use. Clearly, those who argue we need to go back to the basics – at the exclusion of C-IED training – fail fully to appreciate what has happened over the past decade.

Consequently, CET ought to be a fundamental, core capability – not a “tactical fixation”6 exemplified by slogans such as “the war on IEDs” – to protect the force and ensure freedom of manoeuvre and action so tactical missions can be accomplished in support of operational objectives and strategic goals. Much as ships would not leave port untrained and unequipped for mines, modern land forces should not again deploy unprepared for improvised explosives.7

 

Threat networks

An array of complex, associated, transnational networks, facilitated by today’s “flat world,” and driven by non-state actors with common goals, is behind much of the chaos. And while threats ebb and flow based on geopolitical factors, these networks of extreme non-state actors remain connected, and are adaptive and resilient. These networks, often criminal or ideological in nature, flourish under “[w]eak government and the absence of rule of law, corruption…poverty, illiteracy, high unemployment, [and] large populations of disaffected youth…”8 Increasingly sophisticated, these threat networks, “sans frontiers,” present omnipresent dangers.9

Explosive devices are used by over 40 regional, transnational and inter-connected networks.10 Moreover, different types of networks – terrorist, transnational criminal organizations (narcotic, human trafficking, weapon proliferation), and IED – are often themselves connected. Recent developments see a weaker terrorist core but ideological messages that resonate with some, leading to the promulgation of self and peer-peer radicalized and dispersed affiliates, which are more difficult to disrupt because they act in accordance with their understanding of the networks’ core intent rather than detailed direction to act that can be intercepted by intelligence agencies.

Consider for a moment the potential seriousness of the problem. It is clear based on their behavior that, if they had nuclear weapons, some of these organizations would likely use them. It is therefore vital that intelligence assets illuminate these evolving networks and maintain a “persistent stare” into them, using all elements of national power to at least defend against their destructive activities, if not attack and disrupt them before they can strike. “It takes a network to defeat a network,” therefore efforts must be integrated across like-minded nations, governmental departments, and agencies in a “counter threat,” rather than a strictly CET partnership of action.  Ultimately, networks are jurisdictionally blind and the solution requires an integrated, multinational, cross-government approach, and a clearly espoused and accepted recognition of the danger.

Given Canada’s demographics, it is clear that sinews of these networks reach into our metropolitan cities and are embraced by “home grown” threats. This poses an ever-present domestic risk, if not an imminent threat. The terrorist threat is recognized in Building Resilience against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter Terrorism Strategy as a key feature in the “national security landscape for the foreseeable future.

Where there are terrorists, there are bombs. Although the Department of Public Safety has the domestic counter improvised explosives lead and DND and other agencies principally play a supporting role, the CAF needs to be postured to assist as required. The CAF is expected to play a vital role “in the preparation for, and execution of, any deployment of CF in response to terrorist activity at home and abroad.” It seems, however, not enough is being done to realize this integrated approach, and in fact the Snowden revelations seem to be closing doors once open and hardening existing stovepipes, undermining further the interagency cooperation required today.

 

Illuminating, countering, attacking, disrupting

There is a shared global challenge here that requires a coordinated response. After a decade of dealing with an adaptable enemy and a technically evolving threat that leverages commercial research and development by buying what they need off the self, it is becoming increasingly expensive to equip forces to protect them against the explosive threat; in fact, there are warehouses of military equipment superseded by technology developed by commercial companies. It therefore makes sense to disrupt belligerents “left of the bang,” before bombs are placed.

Central to maintaining and evolving the CET capability, as well as countering threat networks, is intelligence support. Ideally an interagency organization would exist to support military operations, such the American Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization’s (JIEDDO) CIED Operations and Intelligence Centre (COIC). The COIC is focused on the explosive threat in support of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but is beginning to take a more global view of networks that might threaten U.S. forces and Americans, at home and abroad.

One could imagine given the intertwined and cross jurisdictional nature of networks coupled with the blending of lines that differentiate between conventional and asymmetric conflict and borders, that a multiagency fusion centre might be created within the CAF focused not just on IEDs but other asymmetric threats – a “counter threat network” construct – to better prepare for future challenges. If this is not possible, a virtual interagency and departmental, integrated CET intelligence support framework, to inform a counter threat network partnership of action, is required to monitor threat networks.

Intelligence is fundamental to everything the JCET TF does, whether identifying evolving spirals of technological advancements that belligerents purchase off the self, or optimizing electronic counter measures, properly equipping our forces, providing reach-back support to deployed forces, exploiting devices and incident scenes, supporting operational planning, and ensuring we understand belligerent tactics and properly prepare during “road to high readiness training.” All source intelligence is also absolutely vital to disrupt, attack, and counter by other means, threat networks.

It is useful to first look at the problem of networks from a military perspective so as not to be viewed as meddling in domestic matters clearly in the remit of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. NATO and key allies, doctrinally, tackle the problem as follows. Military forces attack the network in the theatre of operations to disrupt the branches of networks that operate there.

These networks, however, often extend outside of the theatre into countries not specifically involved in the conflict, where they support belligerents operating in theatre, whether it is by recruiting, financing, equipping or training. These parts of networks must also be disrupted, which requires a country and its allies to leverage all elements of national power to have an effect. This activity – counter threat network – is a multiagency activity conducted in support of military operations. During the conflict in Afghanistan, the CAF and allies had some success in their “attack the network” efforts in theatre, but Canada undertook little if any counter threat network activities outside threat; activities in Pakistan and elsewhere that supported insurgents operating in Afghanistan were not disrupted and there was little cohesive effort to do so.

Canada should therefore endeavor to breakdown the “silos of excellence” and establish a more inclusive integrated, interagency and departmental intelligence support framework, perhaps building on the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre or creating a virtually connected organization to support future military operations. The ingenuity of this approach is that the same group can also counter threat networks with a domestic nexus, with the military “taking a back seat” to the Public Safety. This approach would align much better to the cross-jurisdictional nature of networks and the blurred lines between conventional and asymmetric conflict.

One key aspect that hinders better collaboration is a lack of policy, strategies, and modalities that would direct or drive better cooperation. Today Canada and the CAF have no CET or asymmetric threat policy or strategy, something that might be required given the complexity of the problem set and myriad agencies involved to maintain capability and prevent attacks at home and abroad. It is interesting to note that the U.S. President in 2013 signed the U.S. Presidential policy Countering Improvised Explosive Devices and subsequently created the “Joint Program Office for Countering IEDs, administered by the Attorney General through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an interagency group that will coordinate and track progress across the departments and agencies toward building these capabilities” to combat the explosive threat. Failing this policy framework, maintaining grass root partnerships to create a community of action is perhaps the best we can do.

 

The new JCET TF

An enduring threat requires an enduring capability, one that is integrated, interdepartmental, and international in scope. Although most of our close allies are only now starting to face the challenge of waning military and political interest post-Afghanistan, all have recognized the enduring nature of the specific improvised explosive threat and the requirement to maintain a capability to deal with it.

As a positive first step in Canada, in September 2013 the CAF formally recognized the persistent nature of this threat and permanently established the JCET TF. It is clear there is much synergy to be gained by maintaining a central organization focused on the problem set to coordinate the effort within DND. The task force is central to maintaining a relevant Canadian capability. The JCET TF’s mission is to enable collaboration within DND and with cross-government, multinational and other partners at home and abroad in support of CAF and government missions to: prepare both civilian and military personnel; prevent malign actors from using IEDs; and protect CAF and government personnel and Canadian interests.

The capability must be sustained along three pillars: PREVENT, PROTECT, and PREPARE. Prevention “left of the boom” is best achieved by disrupting counter-IED networks that employ them at the tactical level, and various threat networks that support and facilitate them at the operational and strategic levels. This requires an integrated, international, cross-government, multi-agency effort and intelligence/operations fusion at all levels to establish a “continuous stare” into the networks so they may be monitored and disrupted; much work remains to improve this capability.

Forces are protected by detecting and neutralizing improvised explosive threats before they strike, and mitigating both physical and psychological consequences of an explosion. Science and technology and dedicated research and development are required to stay ahead of the threat spiral as adversaries continue to leverage readily available disruptive technologies. Thorough preparation of personnel so they effectively operate in high explosive threat environments is achieved by ensuring they are threat aware, and well trained and equipped, to defeat technologically evolving devices and an adaptable adversary.

While IEDs are today the weapon of choice for many adversaries, it may not always be the case as detection methods improve or other even more efficient disruptive technologies are developed and used by adversaries “to cause havoc.” There is, therefore, an argument that the JCET TF could transition to or be subsumed in a strategic, joint asymmetric threat organization that might focus on non-conventional threats. Under this umbrella might fall counter NBCD, explosive, cyber, network/terrorist and future threat components – food for thought.

Nonetheless, countering IEDs is a force protection matter, not a direct means to achieving mission success and viewing the problem as a “war against the IED” – becoming “device centric” can create tactical myopia. Ultimately, the JCET TF helps ensure future strategic military response options are unconstrained by the explosive threat, and our forces are protected and that freedom of action and movement are preserved so tactical missions can be accomplished in support of operational objectives and strategic goals.

The best defence against the explosive threat remains the well trained soldier and must be a fundamental skill taught to all soldiers at all levels of their training. Continued work is required to institutionalize both general and specialist CET training in the CAF. Change happens in the school house and it is there that a new mindset that recognizes the enduring and omnipresent nature of the threat can be created. Ultimately, the best C-IED equipment in the hands of poorly trained and unaware soldiers is useless. Counter explosive threat training is today a basic core skill.

 Conclusion

We should not forget about the explosive threat even though Canadian soldiers no longer face it. As the champion of the CET capability, the JCET TF has a role to keep this threat in front of the CAF leadership. Canada went to Afghanistan completely unprepared for the improvised explosive threat; from our mindset to training, equipment to vehicles, intelligence to tactical level procedures, we were not ready.

The effort to institutionalize hard learned knowledge, experience and capabilities gathered over a decade of conflict must continue until counter-IED is not only an entrenched specialist capability, but a core skill across the Army and the CAF.

 

 

Colonel Mike M. Minor, CD, MBA, is Commander/Director of Canadian Armed Forces Joint Counter Explosive Threat Task Force.

 

 

End Notes

1. This direction was given by the Chief of Defence staff in writing when the C-IED TF stood-up.

2. See “Canadian Forces Casualties in Afghanistan,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Forces_casualties_in_Afghanistan. 110 of 132 casualties directly related to enemy action were caused by explosives (including suicide bombers).  U.S forces experienced similar casualty rates but by 2013 these numbers had fallen to less than 60 percent because of their focused effort to protect their forces from the IED.

3. Murray Brewster , “Budget cuts threaten to hobble key training for ‘reloaded’ Canadian army, top soldier says,” in National Post, 14 July 2013, at  http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/07/14/budget-cuts-threaten-to-hobble-key-training-for-reloaded-canadian-army-top-soldier-says/.   This article quotes Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, who mentions counter IED as a capability threatened by budget cuts.

4. See Royal Canadian Mounted Police , Canadian Bomb Data Centre’s “Criminal Use of Explosives in Canada—2013 statistics,” at http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/tops-opst/cbdc-ccdb/index-eng.htm.

5. See http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/IraqCoverage/story?id=1692347&page=1; http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/0126/How-Iran-could-beat-up-on-America-s-superior-military; and http://seattletimes.com/html/politics/2009964741_apususnkorea.html.

6. Bill McAuley, “Canada’s Tactical Fixation: Rethinking the IED Phenomena,” Papers from the 15th Annual Graduate Student Symposium: Looking beyond (Ottawa: Conference of Defence Association Institute, n.d) p. 15. McAuley suggests, rightly, that mission objectives became secondary to force protection a somewhat a tactical fixation, particularly when the force began to orientate to this threat that they were unprepared for; 17 deaths to IEDs in 2006 made this a strategic imperative.  This focus was also necessary because the Canadian Forces, with one battle group, were spread much too thinly to conduct successful counterinsurgency operations until the U.S. surge arrived in 2009.

7. This analogy is now being used in many quarters within in the Counter IED community, but the author heard it first used by Brigadier Wayne Budd, Australian Defence Force, who commanded the Australian Counter-IED Task Force.

8. Counter-Improvised Explosive Device: Strategic Plan, JIEDDO, 2012-2016, (Washington DC, Joint IED Defeat Organization, 2012) p. 2, at http://www.scribd.com/doc/123346581/JIEDDO-C-IED-Strategic-Plan. http://www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/resources/20120116_JIEDDO_C-IEDStrategicPlan.pdf.

9. This French expression, “sans frontiers” or “without borders” is used within the Attack the Network Section of the CAF JCET TF to describe the nature of threat networks, which do not respect jurisdictional boundaries.

10.  Counter-Improvised Explosive Device: Strategic Plan, JIEDDO,p.2.

 

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