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.