In December, the final two American soldiers were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name for the U.S.'s 13-year war in Afghanistan that came to a close at year's end. Sgt. 1st Class Ramon Sheldon Morris, 37, from New York and Spc. Wyatt Joseph Martin, 22 from Mesa, Arizona were at different points in their military careers. Morris, who joined the Army in 1996, was on his fifth deployment. Martin, who planned to someday attend Michigan State University and become a fish-and-game officer, was on his first. Although the tragic milestone of their deaths is in some ways purely administrative — U.S. soldiers remain in Afghanistan under the newly called Operation Freedom's Sentinel — the two men suffered a fate that has come to define the war: They were killed in the Parwan Province, just north of Kabul, when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device, commonly known as an IED.
IEDs were responsible for the bulk of U.S. injuries and deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. More importantly, the bombs became the insurgents' weapon of choice — a low-tech device that created fear among troops and helped launch a multi-billion dollar U.S. industry to detect the explosives before they go off. The United States has spent more than $19 billion on IED counter measures plus another $45 billion on mine-resistant vehicles. Still, these devices aren't going away anytime soon.
"The difference is the use of these weapons were limited in the past," said Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "That turned with Iraq and Afghanistan. They've been a powerful tool for insurgents trying to neutralize the U.S. tech advantage."
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More than 2,500 service members were killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post, which compiled its numbers from Defense Department casualty notices. It was the second leading cause of death behind hostile action. From 2008 to 2011, IEDs accounted for more than half of the fatalities in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, a website that monitors casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the threat of IEDs became so critical that the US banned ammonium nitrate fertilizers from entering the country in 2010.
As IEDs proliferated from Iraq to Afghanistan, explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) teams were suddenly in high demand. These teams are trained to disarm bombs. The high stakes game of cat and mouse between bomber and EOD team was showcased in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker, the highly fictionalized account of a team in Iraq. Brian Castner, a former Air Force officer who commanded an EOD unit in Iraq, told me coming face to face with an IED wasn't as nerve wracking as it appears in movies or on TV.
"You wouldn't be doing the job if you didn't think you were smarter or more capable than the guy who put it there," said Castner, who wrote The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows about his experience in Iraq. "Facing an IED is easy and straightforward. The danger was the IEDs you hadn't found yet. That was the game. Show up and find every other IED before one gets you."
In Iraq, U.S. troops first encountered IEDs that used "command detonation," with a wire running from the bomb to a spotter who set it off. Castner said consumer electronics like cell phones, washing machine timers and even garage door openers provided a big leap for bomb makers by allowing them to detonate IEDs remotely. In response, the U.S. spent billions on training, jammers and mine resistant trucks. The Army Chief of Staff also created the Joint IED Defeat Organization to develop training and counter measures. The small working group eventually grew into a multi-billion dollar agency. "This was the EODs' war," Castner said. "We have never had more money or manpower."
Each time the U.S. countered IEDs with technology like jamming cell phone signals, the bomb makers changed tactics. At one point, IEDs were being detonated by lasers like the one at the bottom of a garage door. When the beam was broken, the bomb went off. To counter that, American soldiers attached a long arm with a black box to the front bumper of a Humvee. Called the "Rhino," it tripped the bomb before the Humvee reached the kill zone. Despite all the technical solutions, Lieutenant General Michael Oates, then the commander of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, said dogs paired with troops find 80 percent of IEDs. "Dogs are the best detectors," Oates said at an October 2010 press conference. "That combo presents the best detection system we currently have."
Since 2003, the United States has become more skilled at detecting the bombs. Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who commanded the Joint IED Defeat Organization, told USA Today that training, better detection and surveillance-using drones helped reduce IED casualties in Afghanistan in 2013. "Finally, our war fighters and commanders in the field are the best counter-IED capability we have," said Barbero. "They get it and have a deep and thorough understanding of the enemy, the IED threat, and how to attack it."
But the world's battlefields are also changing. Singer said future wars would likely be fought in cities. Right now, U.S. forces have sensors that can detect a piece of metal easily in rural Afghanistan, but that will be much harder on a city street. "We're becoming more of an urban species," Singer said. "That creates a tough challenge of counter IED work. There are more places for the IED to hide."
Singer said one solution is detectors that pick up the bomb's chemical residue from a safe distance. Better detection and training will mitigate some of the risks, but the IED threat can't be solved with technology, Castner said. It has to start with the bomber.
"Of course IEDs are going to proliferate, but it is not like they are nukes," Castner said. "They are household items with some explosives. You don't build IEDs because they're preferable to rockets and landmines. You build them because you don't have rockets and landmines. Instead of treating them like a technology problem, we should focus on why these people are putting them out in the first place."