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What's an IED and why does it matter?

Updated on July 22, 2010

The Insurgent Weapon of choice

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See more political cartoons by Steve Greenberg at Improvised Explosive Devices account for a significant portion of Coalition casualties.
See more political cartoons by Steve Greenberg at
See more political cartoons by Steve Greenberg at
Improvised Explosive Devices account for a significant portion of Coalition casualties.
Improvised Explosive Devices account for a significant portion of Coalition casualties.

The Insurgent Weapon of Choice

 An IED is an Improvised Explosive Device.  Well, we use factory made or commercial grade explosive devices all the time.  In mining operations, dynamite and other explosives are used in a controlled manner to clear rock and move earth to expose the resource that’s being mined.  In celebration of Independence Day many use fireworks.  There are, of course, military grade explosives as well such as mortars, rockets, land mines, grenades and even missiles and bombs dropped from aircraft.  So what makes an IED so special?  Well, think MacGyver meets Crazy Ivan.  IEDs often use the same military grade munitions that Coalition forces use, but they Jerry-rig them to detonate differently; perhaps by a command wire and trigger or a pressure plate.  More creative schemes include radio frequency remote control or victim-operated sound or motion detectors all available at Radio Shack.  At the end of the day, it’s still the same explosive force, though sometimes they may try to daisy chain them so that a row of bombs will explode simultaneously or in series.  So here’s my issue with everyone being up in a tizzy about how IEDs are such a terrible thing.  No they’re not cotton candy and rainbows, but they are often made from military grade explosives, sometimes American, often Russian (leftovers from the Cold War).  Let’s suppose that we go to war with Russia.  The Russian mortar that is used against coalition forces is no more explosive when buried under a foot of dirt and rocks than it would be if launched from a mortar tube a mile away.  In fact having the “little martyr that could” 200 meters away and well within range of small arms fire is to our advantage because we can actually capture him and acquire more useful information:  who else he works with, what their mission is, what their intent and capabilities are.  At the very least we’re able to kill one more insurgent and make streets a little safer—well, relatively speaking.  So really, I don’t think IEDs are that big a deal.  Sure they go boom and sure they can maim, or kill people to include innocent civilians but check this out. 

A 500-pound aerial bomb rigged to detonate on command
A 500-pound aerial bomb rigged to detonate on command

IEDs vs. Conventional Munitions

Back when I was a Marine, I was trained well enough to call in 10 digit coordinates for an artillery strike. To put things in perspective, that means that I can tell a 105mm Howitzer up to 18 miles away where to fire so that the artillery round will land in the room that you’re in right now. Considering the blast radius is about 35 meters1, that’s pretty good. The thing is that this means that I really just need to get within about 25 meters of you; relatively close—guess it counts in more than horseshoes and hand grenades. And IEDs in a daisy chain configuration is comparable to requesting an artillery battery fire a linear pattern. That means that all the howitzers or mortars fire their rounds so that they impact on target in a line. Here’s a kicker, an artillery battery can fire multiple volleys, way more destruction than just one IED. The Germans have the PzH 2000 that can fire a volley of 5-7 multiple round simultaneous impact by itself and have them all impact on target within 1.6 seconds of each other and the tank will have moved on before the rounds even impact mitigating any counter artillery battery2.

Suicide vests can be rigged to detonate upon releasing a button or by a nearby observer in the event that the bomber gets cold feet.
Suicide vests can be rigged to detonate upon releasing a button or by a nearby observer in the event that the bomber gets cold feet.

Suicide Vests

 Another category of IED is the suicide vest; they generally use homemade explosives or HME as they’re calling it these days.  Basically it works the same way, bright flash and body parts everywhere.  You see, suicide bombers are different story.  They actually walk right up to you to kill you—at least they do you the courtesy of looking you in the eye—and in the process, they kill themselves.  They don’t have the same appreciation for casualty aversion that Americans do.  That’s unimaginable…wait a second, the kamikaze pilots of Japan did something similar during WWII.  They were bolted into their aircraft with only enough fuel for a one-way trip and after expending all ordnance and ammunition, they would crash directly into their targets killing themselves in the process.  The only difference here is that there generally weren’t civilians on the ships while there are civilians on the streets or at a bazaar.

Often, the most decrepit vehicles become VBIEDs. A new trend revealed the insurgent would sell a normal citizen a VBIED unbeknownst to the buyer. Following the sale, a triggerman would follow the car and detonate the buyer and car when it approached
Often, the most decrepit vehicles become VBIEDs. A new trend revealed the insurgent would sell a normal citizen a VBIED unbeknownst to the buyer. Following the sale, a triggerman would follow the car and detonate the buyer and car when it approached


So let’s take a second to talk about Vehicle Borne IEDs or VBIEDs (commonly pronounced “V-Bid”). Well they definitely carry a bit more explosive and can get closer to their targets. The thing is that often times these targets are in a place where a vehicle wouldn’t be conspicuous like Time Square, New York. Of course these places tend to be populated areas where civilians will usually be in close vicinity to the target and the blast, as with most IEDs, will go in all directions rather than just towards the intended target so there will often be civilian casualties. Of course, if we were to attack the same target with a 2000-pound JDAM which has a blast radius of about 2 km3, we’d do way more damage. Though in my experience, Marines tend to use the 500-pound bomb with a blast radius of about 500 meters And before you go saying that we wouldn’t attack a place with civilians, it should be noted that there were civilians present when we took out Zarqawi2 we just decided that it was worth a little collateral damage to get him.

Common outcome of insurgents using IEDs.
Common outcome of insurgents using IEDs.

I must admit that there have been many IED attacks on coalition forces and they are effective. I also have to point out that there are about 886 as of July 17, 2010 hostile casualties4 (not counting non-hostile casualties or wounded in action) in Afghanistan and not all of them are from IEDs. IEDs aren’t the issue, the insurgent methods and rules of engagement are. A congressional report dated August 28, 2007 estimated IED casualties in Afghanistan at about 50% of all casualties5 so that would be about 443 based on these numbers.

So why the big deal? Well really it’s the sensational media. They tell the masses to be scared, that there’s this new threat. Out of the nearly 80,000 troops we have there, less than 500 deaths are due to IEDs. That’s less than 1% (800). We spent much of the beginning of the Global War on Terror talking about how non-state enemies were utilizing un-conventional terror tactics in a non-traditional operating environment. Let me take a second and share an anecdote.

A train of thought is worthless until you put things in perspective.
A train of thought is worthless until you put things in perspective.

Food For Thought

When I was in high school, I was a wrestler and lost a match because the other guy did a cradle incorrectly and I couldn’t counter it properly. For those that are not familiar, a cradle is a wrestling move that involves basically curling up your opponent like a baby and rocking him backwards until his shoulder blades touch the mat and you win. Usually I would bait people to cradle me because as they rocked me back, I’d slip out and beat them when they thought they were about to win. So I commented to my uncle that I’d almost won until this other joker messed up and did this move wrong, to which my uncle calmly replied, “He didn’t do it wrong, he just didn’t do it your way.”

Perspective + Focus = Epiphany
Perspective + Focus = Epiphany

Shifting Pespective

My uncle was absolutely right; heck, it couldn’t have been all that wrong if it actually worked, after all, I did lose that particular match.  The thing was that as a 16-year-old I learned that you can’t pick how your opponent will attack you; you just have to roll with it (although I must admit, I learned from a 50-year-old man).  Somehow it took a few years for the rest of the country to figure this out and come up with terms such as “asymmetric warfare” and “insurgent-terrorist”  in any case, eight years into the Good Depression (it’s not as bad as the “Great” Depression), we should be used to this and over it by now.  Yet so many of the nation’s children enlist in the military and find themselves morbidly afraid of this contemporary threat.  Hopefully, this helps a little by putting things in perspective.  I’m not saying that IEDs are ineffective, just not to be feared so blindly.  They are a weapon, just like any other and this is how the enemy chooses to engage us, we must adapt and overcome.


1 Department of the Army. FM 90-4 Air Assault Opperations. March 16, 1987. (accessed July 19, 2010).

2Waddell Media. No Place to Hide: PzH 2000. April 19, 2006. (accessed July 19, 2010).

3 Sauer, Mark. Precision JDAMs can pack big punch; On-board systems guide air-to-surface weapons. March 21, 2003. (accessed July 19, 2010 ).

4 Chossudovsky, Michel. More Holes in the Official Story on Zarqawi's Death. June 11, 2006. (accessed July 19, 2010).

5 Defense Manpower Data Center. GWoT Casualties by Service Component: October 7, 2001-July 17, 2010. July 17, 2010. (accessed July 19, 2010).

6 Wilson, Clay. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan: Effects and Countermeasures. August 28, 2007. (accessed July 19, 2010).

Do you know an IED victim?

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      thank you for ideas

    • jeffreydjm profile image

      Jeff Mallinson 

      8 years ago from Crawley, UK

      Very well written and insightful.

    • jaskar profile image


      9 years ago from England

      well researched hub on a horrific subject. none the less thanks for the insight.


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