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President Bush has now definitively stated that bombs known as explosively formed penetrators – EFPs, which have proved especially deadly for U.S. troops in Iraq – are made in Iran and exported to Iraq. But in November, U.S. troops raiding a Baghdad machine shop came across a pile of copper disks, 5 inches in diameter, stamped out as part of what was clearly an ongoing order. This ominous discovery, unreported until now, makes it clear that Iraqi insurgents have no need to rely on Iran as the source of EFPs.
The truth is that EFPs are simple to make for anyone who knows how to do it. Far from a sophisticated assembly operation that might require state supervision, all that is required is one of those disks, some high-powered explosive (which is easy to procure in Iraq) and a container, such as a piece of pipe. I asked a Pentagon analyst specializing in such devices how much each one would cost to make. “Twenty bucks,” he answered after a brief calculation. “Thirty at most.”
EFPs work by using explosives to compress, melt and shoot a metal projectile – formed from those disks, molded in a concave shape – in a particular direction. They are feared above all else by troops in Iraq because not only can they punch a hole through the armor of an M-1 tank, they are small and light, and thus far easier to carry and plant undetected than the traditional Iraqi improvised explosive device, which is often made from hefty artillery shells.
“You can do as much or more damage with a 5-pound EFP, which is aimed, as with a 200-pound conventional IED, where most of the energy is dissipated away from the target,” the Pentagon analyst said. The U.S. has (belatedly) responded to the IED threat by “up-armoring” Humvees and other vulnerable vehicles, but EFPs can cleave through the very thickest armor “like butter,” as one Iraq veteran told me.
As of now, these weapons represent only a small fraction of the bombs used against U.S. forces. Last month, according to my Pentagon sources, out of 3,000 IEDs directed at occupation troops, only 2.5% were EFPs. But a further statistic explains why these particular weapons are so feared by soldiers encased in their armored vehicles: Despite the relatively tiny number deployed, since November they have accounted for fully 15% of U.S. bomb casualties, and that percentage is ticking up. Anyone pondering the implications of this trend need only look to the Israeli experience in Lebanon during the 1990s to see where it might end. “These bombs drove the Israelis out of Lebanon,” a former Pentagon weapons-effects expert told me unequivocally.
Hezbollah’s expertise with EFPs is one reason why the administration, despite minimal intelligence, has been quick to blame Hezbollah’s Iranian allies for the proliferation of the devices in Iraq. But EFPs have a venerable history. The IRA used them with lethal effect against British troops in Northern Ireland, as did French resistance fighters against the Germans in World War II. It is only a question of time before someone shows the Taliban how to make them, and then NATO forces in Afghanistan will begin the same ordeal.
Despite their known lethality, these weapons weren’t taken into account by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s program of military “transformation.” Indeed, Rumsfeld bequeathed the Army the Future Combat Systems, a $168-billion extravaganza of computers, sensors and robots deemed by its proponents so deadly to a foe that armor on U.S. military vehicles might be dispensed with altogether.
Once it became impossible to ignore the threat of all kinds of “home-made” bombs, and EFPs in particular, Rumsfeld responded in orthodox fashion by throwing money at the problem.
A “joint IED defeat” task force was created to address the issue, and last year it was granted $3.32 billion, but with little result. True, each Humvee patrolling Iraqi roads now carries two specially designed jammers, costing $100,000 apiece, that jam radio signals detonating roadside bombs. The other side has simply switched to wire detonators or infrared systems. One hundred towers spouting remote cameras, at $12 million each, watch main roads for bomb planters, with no improvement in attack and casualty statistics.
Rumsfeld’s mentor, defense intellectual Andrew Marshall, marketed the phrase “revolution in military affairs” as a justification for high-tech programs such as Future Combat Systems. But those copper disks represent the real revolution in military affairs, and it is not in our favor.
ANDREW COCKBURN is the author of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.