Simple is Dangerous

How is an improvised explosive device like the flu? Fighting the two killers will take the same kind of thinking.

The Department of Defense is planning to step up its offensive against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the top killer of US troops today. A Nov. 3 article in the Los Angeles Times cited the desire of some Pentagon officials to see “an effort like the nationwide Manhattan Project … to deal with the IED threat,” and reported that leadership of the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Task Force may soon be handed from a one-star to a three- or four-star general or admiral.

There is no doubt that the military needs better tools for fighting these increasingly deadly explosives. Rather than the sprint to build a nuclear bomb, though, the fight against IEDs will resemble the ongoing fight against the influenza virus – another “primitive,” adaptable and lethal enemy. Like the fight against influenza, the campaign against IEDs must be designed to confront an evolving threat. Furthermore, just as flu vaccines cannot replace a global strategy for public health, IED countermeasures will never substitute for a broad strategy for winning asymmetric wars.

Improvised explosive devices are not defined by any common technological principle. An IED is anything which blows up but was not built in a large factory; the specifics of how this is achieved vary widely. For example, IEDs may be detonated by remote controllers, timers, or pressure triggers.

This lack of standardization is the weapon’s secret strength against technological countermeasures. A counter-IED technology which defeats one type of IED will be useless against another: a jammer which disables a remotely-detonated IED is useless against timers, and improved armor can be pierced by shaped charges.

Tactical countermeasures are less vulnerable to evolving attack methods. Varying traffic patrol routes and schedules, for example, is a tactic which may have been neglected in Iraq, while drills in spotting and avoiding IEDs prepare drivers to make split-second decisions.

Tactical innovation has its limitations, too, though. Only a finite number of routes connect one location to another, and unpredictable schedules do nothing to foil booby-traps.

An analogy between technology and biology illustrates how the diversity of IED technology enables insurgents to adapt to new defenses. The resilience of insurgent technology is, literally, an evolutionary capability, fueled by the wealth of variation within the insurgent “gene pool.”

Whereas a large-scale weapons-manufacturer ensures that all the bombs it produces are identical, insurgent bomb-making workshops must make do with the materials and expertise at hand. Each workshop puts out a product with different capabilities and limitations; some products will prove more resistant than others to the defenses employed against them.

If one workshop’s bombs succeed where others’ have failed, the others will do their best to imitate it. The “fittest” technique will “reproduce,” continuing to spread until new defenses favor a new “breed” of bombs.

Similarly, influenza’s resilience arises not from any genetic sophistication, but rather from extreme simplicity and “unreliability.” Unlike more complex organisms, the flu virus has no sophisticated molecular mechanisms to keep errors from creeping in when its genetic material is copied. Every time the virus reproduces, the risk of a “mistake,” or mutation, is relatively high.

This unreliability works to the virus’ advantage. If the immune system, or a scientist, finds a new way to fight the flu, a mutated strain may be able to resist the attack. New strains of the flu evolve from year to year, and therefore a new flu shot is needed every winter.

While the Department of Defense is right to invest in combating the IED threat, talk of a “Manhattan Project” to defeat IEDs poses a misleading model. Instead of hoping that some “silver bullet” will make the IED problem go away, the designers of the new task force should examine the lessons of campaigns against influenza.

The new IED task force must be designed, like the flu vaccine manufacturing process, for “rapid response,” with a continuing emphasis on quickly developing new countermeasures to confront new threats. Both bugs and bombs demand broader responses that can stifle new strains before they emerge, however.

To prevent a global flu pandemic, improved rural medical networks must form a first line of warning and defense against emerging epidemics. Similarly, counter-IED technology will never substitute for reliable intelligence and the goodwill of Iraqi civilians.

More prosaically, attacks on convoys can be reduced by minimizing the logistical “tail” of U.S. forces. The bulk of the military’s supplies, including fuel, are brought into Iraq overland from Kuwait; these convoys present large, slow-moving, predictable targets for insurgent attacks.

The goal of “taking the war to the terrorists” is not being achieved if the military’s greatest challenge is stopping our armored vehicles from being torn to pieces. An improved IED task force is needed, but it will be only one weapon in the war for Iraq.

HANINAH LEVINE is a research assistant at the Center for Defense Information.