When do IEDs quit being IEDs? Why are we still treating insurgent munitions as folk arts?

I started as a university student, I was studying folklore and material culture, and IED’s certainly qualify as material culture that has the potential to tell you something beyond basic forensics. In this entry I am looking at IEDs using the language of business, innovation and ___________ ? The idea is to see what insights can be gained from thinking about IEDs outside of the military language.

We still read about IED’s in the popular media as if they are a folk art or the equal of some kind of primitive booby-trap. But people have been making these things for a lot of years, so that’s a lot of improvising and in turn I am suggesting what must be a fair bit of standardizing. (As a note, this entire post is based on this premise. If the premise is not true, well… what do you want for free?) Agreed, from a threat perspective, it matters little the sophistication at the point of use or to those injured and killed by them. The effects of even crude devices are well known. But at what point do you go from thinking of them as completely improvised weapons of opportunity and start thinking of them as standardized weapons and part of an formal overall weapons system? To continue thinking of “IED’s” as “improvised” belies the underlying increasing sophistication from which I suspect they come into being.

If you want to know what I mean by “standardized munitions,” go into any outdoor store that sells hunting gear and you will see standardized weapons and ammunition. They are made in large factories with relatively strict controls of production, quality, distribution and sales. While there are multiple value and supply chains these weapons travel (for example, those destined exclusively for military use vs. something available to a private citizen), when the system works properly and the applicable laws are observed, these weapons can be tracked from manufacture to final distribution. They have a path they follow from factory to the dealer to the consumer (be it person or state).

However, what I am questioning is does the difference between an improvised device and standardized device just boil down to: if all the components are collected, assembled and distributed from a single point OR if individual components are distributed from multiple points and then assembled at or near the point of use? Indeed, too jump to the punch line, seems the main difference between them if they are state approved and regulated, they are legitimate munitions.  If it is not state approved or regulated, it is an improvised monition.

At this stage of IED development, “improvised” speaks more to a production process than lack of standardization. We are really speaking to the multiplicity of possible components that can be used, the non-standard nature of the distribution channel, the point at which the components come together and the lack of state approval or regulation. It is important to tease these minor points apart because those elements that we use to define them as “improvised,” are in fact the major strengths insurgencies seem to standardize munitions around.

In the US people hear about insurgents making explosives in an ad hoc fashion like some kind of hillbilly explosive or bathtub gin. If you keep up with the news, you know that is not true. They have become increasingly sophisticated and we are no longer just dealing with fertilizer and oil. While there may be a multiplicity of components that make up IED’s, I am suggesting that there has been developed a standardization of production principles that allow for multiple production methods.  In fact, it can be suggested that one of the strengths of insurgencies in asymmetric warfare is not the in diversity of the product portfolio (IEDs, EFPs, etc) but the diversity of the production methods for their portfolio of products, the munitions. This diversity of this production allows of a set of specific principles or rules to be set in place that can be applied across a variety of situations on a localized basis.  It is as if McDonalds supplied the basic plans for the menu, the marketing and occasionally advising, but the franchisee could purchase stock locally or from the national distributor, depending on what worked best in that market. They lose the classic buying power you get with an economy of scale, but it also gives the insurgency much more flexibility in the system so they don’t have to worry about centralized shortages.

More mechanically complex weapons systems, from a hand guns to a warships, depend on strict manufacturing standards with little to no tolerance in variation. IEDs generally can have fairly wide tolerances in variation between components.  Multiple power sources can be utilized, trigger mechanisms can be as complex or as simplified as needed. While some of the components can be complex to manufacture, there are number of variations of each component that can be mixed and matched to create a completed munition. This high level of variability is enabled by focusing on diversity of production methods as opposed to diversity of product that keeps a certain amount of slack in the IED supply chain. If the source of one component runs out, the high tolerance for variation means that a component with similar characteristics can fill in the gap.

There is one more issue that the diversity of production methods provides an insurgency in this context: A very high return on investment (ROI). In the most simple terms, an IED that costs $200 or so dollars to create can force a standard military to spend millions of dollars in attempts to create technical means to defeat it. Using the diversity of production method principle, an insurgency has the ability to react to technical defeat solution much faster than those defeat solutions can be created.


4 Responses to When do IEDs quit being IEDs? Why are we still treating insurgent munitions as folk arts?

  1. This is an interesting piece, and seems to extend ideas John Robb included in Brave New War. (I reviewed Robb’s book for reason magazine in 2008.) I’d only caution you against an overly loose construction of the term “return on investment,” which is also an issue in Robb’s book.

    It’s true that in strategic terms, it counts as a relative win when your cheap weapon effectively counters their expensive one, or requires their expensive one to counter you. I learned that in my Determinants of General-Purpose Forces course at that fancy collitch they sent me to, many years ago.

    But I think conflating that concept with ROI obscures more than it clarifies. A real ROI means I have more than I did before I made the investment. I spend $10 on lemon, sugar and paper cups; I make $20 selling lemonade. I have an ROI of $10 (or 100%). What’s more, my customers have lemonade! Value has been created.

    Contrariwise, if I spend $200 on an IED and blow up my enemy real good, I’m out $200 with no material gain of my own. You may be minus one Humvee and four enlisted personnel, or a pipeline switch. You may have to spend $200,000 in response to my attack. But what we’re measuring isn’t relative gain, but relative impoverishment. I’m making you poorer faster than you’re making me: poorer in money, goods and lives. But we’re both making each other poorer. Value is only destroyed.

    This is why the Australian economist John Quiggin calls war a negative-sum game. Even in cases where one side prevails decisively (rare enough), the total pie post-bellum is smaller than it would have been had no war taken place.

  2. Thanks Jim. I have never read Brave New war, so now I have another book on the pile. There is a lot to be said about looking as war in general as a serious race into impoverishment, I don’t disagree. However, in business terms, there are more recognized returns on investment that just financial. I will have to give it more thought. I see your point of view, but there is still something missing. I will have to noodle on it some more. Thanks!

  3. Mark: Ok, add yet another to the pile, which is by Mike Davis and about the history of the car bomb: http://www.ethnography.com/2008/03/culture-and-car-bombs/ Culture and change are to be found in odd places!

  4. Good point, although in a real and semantic sense both types of technologies are improvised and standardized. No explosive device design that works beyond an N of 1 can be said to be improvised in an essential way you’re presenting. I mean, explosives aren’t a domain that welcomes true, idiosyncratic improvisation. There’s a real, materialist reason that’s the case; true, repeat improvisers don’t live long enough to diffuse change to design- at least not with all their limbs. But, even in most cases that don’t involve mortal danger, there really isn’t much in the way of paradigm shifting change on a daily basis. Jazz has always followed various sets of rules, painters generally use canvas with paint, etc… So, if we were to apply your thesis to things we wouldn’t have trouble classifying as involving great deals of improvising, then any shared meaning can break down quickly. Or, a similar type of deconstruction can be made for most of art, design, technology change, etc… I’m not sure what would be gained by doing that, but it would make rational sense. It would be a bit like stating the obvious, in order to give examples of the way some practices are more privileged than others. But, in a very real sense there’s not much improvising by an orchestra playing a written piece, versus a free form jazz band writing parts of a song while they are playing it. Improvised status isn’t about effectiveness, or even just design, but also in the agency of the user. A trombone played by a jazz musician isn’t different than one played by a musician in an orchestra, but the former has a great deal of agency in the way the instrument is used. The folks that design, manufacture, test, etc… weapons for uniformed, state militaries are all different. And, the way it is used is not determined by the user in most cases.

    So, I think you point is valid, but the fact is that while the basic materials, and triggering methods have remained rather stable over the decades on both sides with some quantitative differences, there is a great deal of improvising those materials together for very narrow and specific purposes. Again, the same could be said about many practices. An IED is purpose and custom built each time, and hence they are improvised for a specific time, target, purpose, and intended effect. The same can’t be said of standardized munitions of state level forces.

    Another thing missing is the fact that “standardized” munitions and equipment can and are used in new and unconventional ways sometimes, i.e., they can become improvised by being changed. Unlike a cobbling together of somewhat random parts to form an IED system, these are usually deconstructed from already completed weapons systems for other uses. Doing this would in fact make it an “IED” among the culture of warriors that do these kinds of things. That’s what it would be called. Doing such things is also rather illegal within most uniformed services, and only elite forces get away with doing it as a common practice.
    For example, in the Army I was introduced to claymore mines by a Special Forces guy. It is actually a bomb that’s meant to be customizable, but I learned from him that you can also cut it in half, and set it up as a controlled, directional charge for a booby trap on a door you need to secure. This use isn’t in any manual. Elite forces, especially in the U.S. Army, are expected to think outside of the box and improvise often, and as needed. If the regular army is a fine symphonic orchestra, then Army spec ops are generally the hipster, jazz bands.
    Because trust, and the signaling of being trust-worthy through conformity to ritual, appearance, etc… these forces signal to others that they are beyond doubt by not having to conform down range. That being said, no soldier in any NATO force is ever allowed to improvise an illegal weapon according to the Laws of War, Geneva Statutes, etc… Like, you can’t use glass as a weapon, because it can’t be x-rayed.

    So, everyone improvises and everyone standardizes, but the term IED is generally a valid one in the way that the term is used to classify such systems. And, that’s what they are, systems. I’d say the use of the word “terrorist” is abused far more often. The cat and mouse game played in guerrilla warfare changes the way things are done and technology exploited on both sides. U.S. forces using jamming technology to stop radio detonated IEDs, also stop themselves from being able to communicate. To beat the a jammer, people either put themselves at risk using wired control, or remove control by fashioning a pressure plate out of wood boards, some nails and some springs, and pray that they don’t blow up their own. The other side will then rely more on communication and coordination to defeat these, and on and on. In the end, both sides also change up tactics, techniques and procedures within a narrow range, but only do the non-state forces improvise their weapons systems to such a degree. State-forces usually just pick and choose from completed, non-improvised technologies.

    Also, the economy of scale for NATO forces has effectively over come the IED threat. There’s probably a casualty for every few hundred or a thousand explosions now. I’ve seen an entire front end of a vehicle mangled, and in a deep hole, and everyone walk away undamaged from it. Even damage to a vehicle like that has become pretty rare.