Technology lessons from the Iraq war.

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Oct. 12 2007 8:03 AM

The Jihadsons

Technology lessons from the Iraq war.

IED blast. Click image to expand.
U.S. soldiers at an IED blast site

Last week, in a four-part series, Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post detailed the U.S. military's struggle against "improvised explosive devices" in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, IEDs have killed about 2,000 U.S. troops and wounded 20,000 more. From January to July, Atkinson counts more than 20,000 Iraqi roadside bomb attacks—"one every 15 minutes." To the extent that we're losing the war, IEDs are a major reason why. What can we learn from this humbling experience? Here are a few lessons.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. IEDs shift the orientation of war from space to time. Last year, after being briefed on IEDs, President Bush described them as a weapon chosen by Iraqi terrorists "to attack us from a safe distance, without having to face our forces in battle." That's not quite right. Attacking from a safe distance was the idea behind the previous guerrilla tactic: sniping. A sniper is hard to hit because he's hidden and far away. But there's a tradeoff: The safer his distance, the harder it is for him to deliver his bullet to the right spatial coordinates. The same goes for any artillery.

IEDs eliminate this tradeoff. The killer delivers his lethal charge exactly where he wants it. He achieves this by being at the chosen spatial coordinates at an earlier point in time. The only coordinate he has to worry about is temporal: when to set off the blast. He can watch the spot and detonate his bomb manually, or he can set it to blow automatically when you drive over it. Insurgents have done both. Some use infrared sensors to detonate when the first warm object passes overhead. Others time radio signals to take out approaching convoys. As Atkinson puts it: "A bomb with 100 pounds of explosives detonating beneath an armored vehicle was equivalent to a direct hit from a six-gun artillery battery, but with an accuracy no gunner could hope to achieve."

You can't defeat IEDs in space. You have to fight them in time. You have to find the killer—the "emplacer"—at the time coordinate when he's planting the bomb. U.S. forces have gradually learned this lesson. They're dispatching aerial drones to catch emplacers in the act. They're planting bugs and surveillance cameras. They're analyzing audio and video recordings of dangerous areas before they go in, to make sure there's no time coordinate at which somebody has booby-trapped the relevant space coordinates.

2. Morality is expensive. It's easier to destroy things than to preserve or build them. You just plant another bomb, slink away, and let the Americans worry about finding the needles in the haystack. It's even easier when you don't care whom you kill. With an automatic infrared trigger, you can be hundreds of miles away when your bomb goes off. If it wipes out a school bus, so be it. Meanwhile, senior American officers have withheld IED-fighting equipment, at mortal risk to their own troops, in part because it might damage Iraqi gas or power lines. That's the price of being nice.

Our technology, unlike the enemy's, has to be safe as well as effective. That takes time and money. Atkinson describes a device called JIN that was rejected in part because each unit, which cost $800,000, would be destroyed by any IED it detonated. But that cost pales next to the political price of U.S. casualties. The purpose of IEDs has been to kill enough Americans with enough regularity to make the public demand that our troops come home. The insurgents are winning because they care less about death than we do.

3. Machines are crucial to defeating terrorism. The main advantage of machines isn't that they're brilliant. It's that they don't bleed. Four years ago, the United States had six working military robots. Now it has 6,000. One mobile model detects explosives from molecules in the air. Others inspect and defuse suspected bombs—or get blown up trying. We can't stand death, so we replace our soldiers with lifeless proxies.

Spatially, robots are a way to be at the bomber's target location without really being there. Temporally, they're a way to knock the bomb off its time coordinate, detonating it before humans arrive. Atkinson describes how American electronic warfare planes "burn the route" in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying over roads and beaming radio signals to set off IEDs before convoys pass through.

4. Simplicity beats complexity. We have $800,000 custom-made gizmos that take years to design, build, test, and refine. The insurgents have consumer electronics. They turn artillery shells into bombs. They use fertilizer compounds, rice bags, and gas and propane canisters to make explosives. They enlist egg timers, washing-machine dials, cell phones, car key fobs, walkie-talkies, wireless doorbell buzzers, and toy remote controls as detonators.

One advantage of their approach is that it's cheaper. They can trade IEDs for robots all day. Another advantage is that it's constantly evolving. They don't need high-priced military contractors to upgrade their technology. The toy companies and cell-phone makers do it for them, and U.S. military countermeasures can't keep up. The third advantage is that simple technology is easier to teach to new users. You don't need an engineering degree to become a bomber. You just need to know the basics of key fobs or ham radio.

5. Communications technology is accelerating the enemy's adaptive speed. Atkinson notes a Marine's complaint that in Iraq, "The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons." The complaint is misconceived. Today, the Flintstones are the Jetsons. In fact, they're the Jihadsons. Insurgents use the Internet to share bomb recipes, emplacement methods, and updates on U.S. countermeasures. They advertise IED services on Web sites, complete with video of previous blasts. They distribute bomb-making manuals on CDs. One recent Web-posted manual was titled "How to Disable U.S. 'Joint IED Neutralizer.'" Another was "Military Use of Electronics Prepared by Your Brother in Allah." Flintstones, meet Jetsons.

American military strategists originally thought they could snuff out IEDs by rounding up the bomb makers. That might have worked if the insurgents operated like the Pentagon. But they don't. Their simple technology is easy to teach, and they don't need to bring you to a camp in Afghanistan to do it. Just click "download," and bang, you've got better intel than Dick Cheney. According to Bush, the enemy's turnaround from discovering new U.S. anti-IED technology to posting instructions on how to defeat it is down to five days.

Bush thinks the lesson of this reaction speed is that we should suppress information about our technology. But maybe the lesson is that we can't stop the spread of destructive technology and information, in which case we'd better concentrate on reducing the number of people who feel motivated to use it against us. As Atkinson points out, when we closed Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper in the spring of 2004, Shiites joined Sunnis as IED bombers, and the number of attacks almost doubled.

6. Humans are still better than machines. To begin with, we're more agile and discerning. Insurgents can disguise IEDs as rocks, curbstones, corpses, and car parts. Our machines can't find these bombs. Slight variations in flight trajectory or wind-blown trash confound our efforts to digitally identify IED-related activity in aerial images. The best IED spotters, according to an Army report, are soldiers who have hunted or fished.

Humans are also far better at adapting. By watching the weather and our drone takeoffs, insurgents deduce when it's safe to move. By observing our convoy precautions, they learn how to work them into bombing plans. When we jam their detonation frequencies, they monitor our jammers and switch detonators. Our jammers don't evolve fast enough to keep up with their innovations.

Some of our best countermeasures have been random or ad hoc. We've reconfigured obsolete jammers, put "hillbilly armor" on our vehicles, and used truck-mounted toasters and leaf blowers to clear out IEDs. Our most effective anti-IED technology is a vehicle-mounted bomb decoy whose distance from the chassis is designed to vary by whim. If the enemy can't predict our behavior, he can't plan.

7. Human limits also limit technology. Some of our technology fails because it asks too much of us. We designed a drone to be operated remotely by troops in a trailing vehicle, only to discover that riding in one vehicle while virtually driving another made soldiers carsick. We built an IED armor kit that made vehicle doors so heavy soldiers can't open them. We developed digital surveillance programs that capture so many precise images that the officers assigned to monitor them become overloaded and zone out.

The enemy's simple technology suits human limits; our complex technology defies them. Our crazy menu of jammers confused our troops, making them think they were jamming the right frequencies when they weren't. Our tutorials in wave propagation flummoxed them. When the $800,000 IED neutralizer flunked real-world tests, the company that built it blamed operator error, denying that the machine was "a failure in any way." But if humans can't operate your machine, your machine is a failure.

8. Here come the cyborgs. If humans are too precious to hunt IEDs, and if machines are too obtuse, there's a third option: animals. In fact, the analog dexterity of animals can be combined with the manipulative power of digital technology. In the last few years, the military has explored the idea of bomb-detecting bees monitored by miniature cameras. It has sought remote control of IED-sniffing dogs through radio receivers attached to their collars. The bomber operates his IED from a safe distance. Why not do the same with your dog?

Alas, dogs will be dogs, and bees will be bees. The bee idea fell through because bees soon died, wasting their training in explosives detection. The dog project never achieved stardom because, as Atkinson explains, "a working dog grew easily distracted after 30 minutes, not unlike a soldier watching an aerostat monitor." To overcome these limits, we'd have to take the cyborg concept a bit further, putting silicon technology directly into the bodies of animals and, eventually, soldiers. But that's a story for another war.