Afghanistan — Countering Taliban IEDs with intelligence, training and equipment

The Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force’s strat­e­gy for defeat­ing the impro­vised explo­sive device threat in Afghanistan can be char­ac­terised by three main ele­ments — attack­ing the sys­tem, defeat­ing the device and prepar­ing the force — senior British offi­cers said yes­ter­day.

1st Battalion The Royal Welsh's Fire Support Company
A sol­dier from 1st Bat­tal­ion The Roy­al Welsh’s Fire Sup­port Com­pa­ny search­es for impro­vised explo­sive devices dur­ing a patrol in Nad ‘Ali
Source: Staff Sergeant Mark Jones, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Major Gen­er­al Gor­don Mes­sen­ger, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cer, and Colonel Peter Smith, Assis­tant Direc­tor of Counter-IED at Land Forces Head­quar­ters, reit­er­at­ed that the IED men­ace is being coun­tered through intel­li­gence, train­ing and equip­ment at a brief­ing to the media in MOD’s Main Build­ing yes­ter­day, Thurs­day 1 July 2010.

Remind­ing the audi­ence that while impro­vised explo­sive devices are far from a new phe­nom­e­non and that around 300 are found every month out­side Iraq and Afghanistan, Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger said that it was in Afghanistan that their use had become ‘unprece­dent­ed’.

Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger said that the fight against the IED threat was far more than the lone bomb dis­pos­al expert on the ground and the ‘long walk’ to dis­arm­ing the device. He said it was a pan-defence and pan-gov­ern­ment effort tak­ing in exper­tise and resources not only from the mil­i­tary but from the For­eign Office, Home Office and police, as well as many oth­ers in the UK and abroad.

It is these oth­er depart­ments and agen­cies that, along with Defence, are work­ing on the first pil­lar of the strat­e­gy — ‘attack­ing the sys­tem’.

Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger explained:

“Whilst we are absolute­ly con­tin­u­ing to pay utmost atten­tion to ‘defeat the device’ and con­tin­ue to plough enor­mous amounts of ener­gy, invest­ment and tech­nol­o­gy into improv­ing that, it will nev­er be the sole card that plays the trick and we are putting a lot more into ‘attack­ing the sys­tem’.

“This is about pre­vent­ing the IED being laid in the first place and here it is about under­stand­ing the organ­i­sa­tions and the net­works that are respon­si­ble for plac­ing these in the ground.

“Here we have to view the peo­ple that do this as noth­ing more than crim­i­nals, part of crim­i­nal net­works, and there­fore tack­led in the same way that any­one would tack­le a crim­i­nal net­work.

“That requires us to under­stand that net­work and it requires an enor­mous intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing effort, the span of which would be dif­fi­cult to describe.”

homemade explosives discovered at Forward Operating Base Talibjan
Two large con­tain­ers packed with home­made explo­sives dis­cov­ered at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Tal­ib­jan
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

He went on to say that at the low-tech end of the mar­ket UK forces in Afghanistan are increas­ing­ly under­stand­ing this net­work for them­selves and pro­vid­ing essen­tial infor­ma­tion:

“The guys on the ground are learn­ing more and more about the threat that they face and there­fore devel­op­ing their means of tack­ling it,” Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger said.

He added that there is also a very sub­stan­tial high-tech approach to the prob­lem, not only in deploy­ment of cross-gov­ern­ment agen­cies from this coun­try and from oth­er nations, but also through things like air­borne sur­veil­lance and oth­er means of col­lect­ing intel­li­gence which require a very high lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy:

“We are improv­ing all the time our abil­i­ty in what we call ‘per­ma­nent wide area sur­veil­lance’ so that we can iden­ti­fy nefar­i­ous activ­i­ty as it is being con­duct­ed and work it back to attack­ing the net­work.

“That is not a panacea and nev­er will be a panacea — it has to be seen as an over­all approach. But the bot­tom line is every sin­gle mem­ber of the task force is part of that intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing effort.

“Part of that is gath­er­ing foren­sics, analysing the foren­sics and know­ing what con­sti­tutes some­thing of intel­li­gence val­ue and what does­n’t. That is some­thing that is much more instinc­tive in the minds of every sol­dier.”

Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger stressed that there is an inter­na­tion­al dimen­sion to this intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing effort, and it’s not sim­ply the Brits doing it alone:

“We are also look­ing beyond Afghanistan in terms of the pro­vi­sion of some of the more sophis­ti­cat­ed com­po­nents and in the pro­vi­sion of finance that sup­ports these net­works.

“We are also work­ing hard with the Afghan Gov­ern­ment in this regard and there have been a num­ber of leg­isla­tive changes which sup­port this.

improvised explosive devices
A sol­dier prac­tis­es detect­ing impro­vised explo­sive devices
Source: Cor­po­ral Bar­ry Lloyd RLC, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“An exam­ple would be the recent ban­ning of ammo­ni­um nitrate by the Afghan Gov­ern­ment, ammo­ni­um nitrate being a fer­tilis­er that can be very quick­ly used to gen­er­ate home­made explo­sives.

“But at the heart of attack­ing the sys­tem is good, hon­est counter-insur­gency. It is about sep­a­rat­ing the pop­u­la­tion from the insur­gent so that insur­gents can­not feel com­fort­able and can­not oper­ate with impuni­ty.

“We are quite often see­ing vil­lages with a lot of IEDs in their area com­ing to us and say­ing we can’t go about our busi­ness, and clear­ance oper­a­tions are being tar­get­ed to clear these areas to allow entire vil­lages to go about their busi­ness with a degree of nor­mal­i­ty.”

Mov­ing to the sec­ond pil­lar of the strat­e­gy, Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger explained that ‘defeat­ing the device’ is about find­ing these devices once they have been placed and neu­tral­is­ing and destroy­ing them once they have been found:

“In terms of our abil­i­ty to find and detect the devices we are at the cut­ting-edge of sci­ence in pro­vid­ing tech­nol­o­gy to peo­ple on the ground to find these devices before they go off,” Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger said.

“There is much more shar­ing of infor­ma­tion inter­na­tion­al­ly on the tech­nol­o­gy but the UK capa­bil­i­ty is as good and if not bet­ter than any­thing else that is out there, and is recog­nised as such by those in the field in Afghanistan.

“But it isn’t just about tech­nol­o­gy, it is about under­stand­ing the ter­rain that you are oper­at­ing in and it is about fair­ly low lev­el abil­i­ty to detect change and detect ground signs. It is here that we find that oper­at­ing along­side the Afghans in a part­ner­ing approach is pay­ing real div­i­dends.

“We are also see­ing much more in hand-ins and indi­ca­tions from the local pop­u­la­tion which is a sign that a) they feel high­ly threat­ened by this threat but also b) that they feel suf­fi­cient­ly com­fort­able to do so.

“What we are there­fore achiev­ing is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er rate of find, and the ratio of find to explode is good and get­ting bet­ter.

Trojan armoured engineer tank in Helmand province
A Tro­jan armoured engi­neer tank in Hel­mand province — Tro­jan vehi­cles can be equipped with the Python trail­er-mount­ed, rock­et-pro­pelled mine-clear­ing sys­tem
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“On pro­tect­ed mobil­i­ty, the lev­el of pro­tec­tion that is afford­ed our peo­ple, both indi­vid­ual pro­tec­tion and when in-vehi­cle, is as good if not bet­ter than any­one else. And again this is at the very cut­ting-edge of tech­nol­o­gy.

“But the prob­lem is in a pop­u­la­tion-focused cam­paign you have to get out of those vehi­cles and the bot­tom line is you can’t out-armour your way out of this prob­lem.”

Final­ly, Major Gen­er­al Mes­sen­ger explained that the third ele­ment of the strat­e­gy was about ‘prepar­ing the force’ and that this issue is now in the ‘blood­stream’ of every­one in uni­form, and the counter-IED aware­ness goes right back to basic train­ing:

“This is not sim­ply about pre-deploy­ment train­ing, this is some­thing that every­one is acute­ly aware of.

“We are not sim­ply train­ing the UK troops, we are also train­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces in this regard, and we are also improv­ing the aware­ness of the Afghan pop­u­la­tion through a series of shuras and meet­ings to make sure they under­stand what they can do about it.

“We are train­ing peo­ple not just to be defen­sive, we are train­ing peo­ple to attack the sys­tem, and that involves the instinct for intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing and an instinct for foren­sic aware­ness.”

He said that there has been heavy invest­ment in the train­ing estate in this coun­try and many bases now have train­ing lanes to allow troops to devel­op not only the tech­ni­cal skills to find and neu­tralise devices but also the sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness to spot the tell-tale signs.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK