Over the last 15 years the IED has solidified its relevance globally, directly influencing how armies are resourced and wars are fought. It has been responsible for over 130,000 casualties in 85 countries and territories since 2011 alone, according to the Action on Armed Violence IED Monitor 2017. What has been generally viewed as an asymmetric weapon of last resort for under resourced insurgencies, has now proven, in both form and function, to be one of the most impactful weapons on the modern battlefield. Its success against even well-resourced, modern militaries has made it just as relevant a mechanism for setting conditions of conventional conflict as a means of executing an asymmetric insurgency. In 2010, the Arab Spring led to uprisings across the Middle East, prompting numerous armed conflicts, several of which have since evolved into proxy conflicts with implications reaching far beyond the confines of the local fight. Current proxy conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, Somalia, and Lebanon, have all been plagued by IEDs. As was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, these conflicts all leverage non-state actors, but project the influence of major external state powers. The IED has become the weapon of choice for insurgents around the world. Likewise, insurgencies have become the weapon of choice of conventional powers who benefit from regional disruption. The complex challenge facing modern stability forces now, and in the future, is how to respond to such a dynamic threat when conventional equipment and their resourcing methods are too deliberate and cumbersome.
The use of IEDs is not new. IEDs, as defined by both design and employment, have been leveraged in various forms around the world for hundreds of years. Flexible in both construct and application, scalable for unique targets, and most significantly, lacking the standardization that enables a deliberate response, IEDs are one of the most versatile weapons on today’s battlefield. Regardless of when they appear throughout history, IEDs are only limited by the availability of materials and the creativity of their maker. Chinese manuscripts from the 1300s detail gunpowder-based, victim-operated counter-mobility weapons (the predecessor to the modern landmine), constructed by hand with the same creativity as contemporary bombmakers. Command initiated IEDs have been documented as far back as the 1500s. During the US Civil War, Union soldiers provided accounts of casualties after encountering buried explosives emplaced by retreating Confederate forces. WWI saw an increased use of improvised munitions with retreating German forces leaving victim-operated triggers tied into unused ordnance in abandoned dugouts, trenches, and other desirable infrastructure to slow the advancing Entente forces. WWII brought about increased tactical deployment of IEDs. Belarusian resistance forces used improvised explosives to critically damage the German rail lines during Operation Bagration. Vietnam saw the use of simple explosive boobytraps to disrupt freedom of maneuver, psychologically impact soldiers, and broadly undermine the taking of key terrain by the better trained and equipped US forces.
Although IEDs have a lengthy history, their use has typically been relegated to defensive and/or covert employment of desperation in the past. Using ordnance in ways other than its intended design, generally by luring victims to self-initiate, was viewed as cowardly, and the term “improvised” itself was considered a pejorative. In many ways this shifting with the IED employment in a deliberate campaign by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. They waged a broad insurgency, with strategic application of IEDs against government forces and are generally considered to be the main influencers of contemporary IED use around the world. This same strategic use of IEDs rose to the visibility of the global public during the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. These deliberate IED campaigns along with the coalition’s use of massive static Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which required constant resupply along established routes, ultimately led to the contemporary prevalence and success of the IED. There is no question the IED was the most influential and impactful weapon on those battlefields. IEDs, reportedly, caused over half of all US fatalities in both conflicts. The success of the IED is attributed to its overall ease to produce and use, its tactical (and cost) effectiveness relative to its targets, and its tailorable application to meet specific strategic intent and contextual constraints. The overwhelming majority of IEDs have been used by non-state actors against sovereign stability forces and civilian populations they represent, resulting in the strategic disruption of conventionally superior forces and the civilian confidence in their government. As such, insurgencies (and the use of IEDs), have become an increasingly effective as an ambiguous means for global powers to undermine the governments of their adversaries’ regional allies with very little investment and fewer political ramifications than would be incurred with overt force projection.
Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Ukraine, and Turkey are all plagued by IEDs employed by militant groups with state sponsors. The addition of a state sponsor to these conflicts provide the proxy groups with better resourcing and financing, which in turn has increased the lethality of devices, sophistication in design, and the proliferation of best IED practices from other conflicts. The Houthis, under the direction and funding of Iran, have accelerated the use of IEDs in the conflict in Yemen. Initially, they were employed as more of an offensive weapon in conjunction with ambushes. As the Houthis gained ground and additional resources, they began employing IEDs to hold territory and delay advancing Saudi forces while disrupt supply lines. Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs), improvised shape charges designed to penetrate armor, also emerged in response to the resourcing of Saudi-aligned forces with armored vehicles. EFPs were a hallmark of the Iranian al-Quds Brigade and arrived on in Iraq to be employed against heavily armored US vehicles after the first year of that conflict. EFPs have currently been used in Syria, Lebanon, and Somalia, demonstrating the ease of proliferation in design and application afforded to nonstandard weapons like the IED. Just as the tactical impact of IEDs has increased, so too has the strategic impact of the proxies who employ them.
The overwhelming strategic payoff of IEDs in the hands of insurgent groups has influenced the current and future conduct of warfare. Conventional forces are largely bound by foreign policy agreements, laws of war, and other various economic factors, which dictate their military strategy and fighting capabilities. Insurgents, on the other hand, are generally only limited by their resources. The non-state actors taking part in the current proxy conflicts have become a major lever of power in today’s hybrid conflict. These state-sponsored surrogates conduct operations outside of what is normally considered humane and acceptable by conventional standards. They can violate treaties and human rights with impunity and without fear of repercussion because they are not beholden by rule of law. Having this type of leeway allows state actors to influence conflicts without being held accountable for the actions of the proxy.
As modern militaries around the world continue to equip and train for the wars of the future, most forward-looking investment is in capabilities that confront hybrid conflict with an emphasis on conventional projection of force and the new threats in conflict realms like cyber and space, but hybrid conflict represents more than just an expanding breadth of the battlefield. Hybrid conflict is the application of all levers of power available to a political actor. With this in mind, one must consider rudimentary threats along with the sophisticated. As near-peer adversaries stood back and observed the last 15 years, as modern Western coalitions invested billions and still struggled to contain significantly less sophisticated enemies, these peer adversaries saw the value of this relatively unsophisticated lever of power. The application of a disruptive proxy enables conventional powers to undermine their enemies (or their enemies’ allies) without the political or economic ramifications of executing a conventional kinetic conflict. It is a lever of power that can influence perception as much as a sophisticated cyber campaign and influence investment as much as a conventional arms race. So, any contemporary force who anticipates peer adversaries to simply line up tanks for the deliberate invasion of territory has probably ignored the most recent instances of force projection by major powers. The ability for nonstandard threats like the IED to be used to influence and disrupt control of an area make it perfect for enabling the uninhibited occupation of that territory. As such, it is critical that conventional forces do not look at the IED as a passing trend. Capability developers tasked with preparing modern forces for hybrid conflict must maintain awareness of, and an effective response to, the IED and its expanding and evolving employment.