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Defeating Improvised Explosive Devices

Using the Systems Approach to Develop Counters to Roadside Bombs

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have had a larger strategic and political impact on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan than on previous wars. These typically low-cost weapons consistently account for more than two-thirds of Coalition Force casualties. Between June 2003 and August 2008, more than 80,000 IED attacks have occurred in Iraq; these include those that exploded and those that were found and neutralized. But evidence emerged in 2008 that indicated that the United States has begun to make progress in defeating them as a weapon of strategic influence—and APL is playing a key role in that progress.

IEDs are more than clever combinations of ordnance and electronics. They also represent funding and supply streams, technological know-how, successful recruiting efforts, human will, and opportunity. APL's decades of experience with electronic warfare, sensors, and systems engineering, as well as emerging research efforts into forensics, materials science, and neuroscience, have positioned the Laboratory to address the factors that lead to a roadside, vehicle-borne, or suicide bombs and potentially deal with the aftereffects.

Some of the more effective IEDs are triggered remotely using a radio frequency (RF) command link. This approach enables selective targeting and allows the triggerman to keep a safe distance from both blast effects and the Coalition Force response. Based on the Laboratory's expertise in electronic warfare, APL was chosen to lead development of jamming techniques for all countermeasures developed through the Marine Corps' Counter Radio-Controlled IED Electronic Warfare (CREW) program as well as through the Navy's Joint-CREW program. Both programs provide ground forces with electronic systems, including jammers, to counter radio-controlled IEDs. Because the enemy dynamically reacts to our countermeasures, our electronic warfare efforts are dynamically responding to and anticipating changes in the IED threat, specifically how future IED technologies might be countered. This year, APL delivered jammer techniques for Navy and Marine Corps troops bound for the field, and soon the second-generation system will go into theater for the first time.

Sensors to detect IEDs must operate in environments with high amounts of RF interference, and they must process information quickly to provide adequate warning. APL is applying its sensor technology experience in measuring frequencies, characterizing electronic devices, and building receiver systems for IED detection that can meet those demands. During the past year, APL has advanced a highly sensitive, unattended ground-based sensor to provide tactical intelligence and early warning of RF trigger devices for IEDs. The Army is currently assessing a prototype system.

When IEDs became a significant military threat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had no existing expert or acquisition community. In 2006, the government established the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to lead U.S. efforts to defeat IEDs, coordinating the efforts of civilian government agencies and the Department of Defense. APL assisted JIEDDO in implementing a multifaceted program aimed at attacking the enemy IED network.

APL's capabilities in systems engineering and solutions development could also prove invaluable as the counter-IED battle moves toward a signatures-exploitation approach. The Laboratory is working on several projects for JIEDDO to exploit signatures produced by the materials and processes behind a device, such as electronics manufacture, explosive materials, fund-raising, and recruitment. APL is developing a catalog of relevant signatures as well as concepts of operations and mathematical procedures for exploiting them. This research also extends to an empirically derived description of the enemy, focusing on the kind of individuals who are recruited to build and emplace IEDs, the targets they choose, and other details.

Other JIEDDO support includes an extensive Red Team activity, operations research and systems analysis support for the JIEDDO Headquarters and the Counter-IED Operations and Intelligence Center, and a signatures program. The Red Team, which is central to the program, consists of APL staff who have learned to think and act as insurgents. In addition to developing concepts and prototype devices to defeat counter-IED systems, they also have become the focal point for the JIEDDO-sponsored production of surrogate devices used in counter-IED system testing. As technical lead for the program, APL executes reverse engineering, redesign, prototyping, and validation/verification of surrogates based on insurgent devices recovered from combat areas.

In addition to efforts to defeat or neutralize IEDs, APL is working to mitigate the effects of those that do detonate. APL develops computational and experimental models of the human body to investigate injury caused by blast for the Office of Naval Research and the Army's Natick Soldier Research and Development Center. These models focus on pressures to which the head and torso are exposed during an explosion and how they contribute to injury. The mechanisms behind injuries are not always clear, especially when it comes to the brain. The brain was believed to be protected from blast waves by the skull, but APL is investigating the theory that brain injury can result from a pressure wave hitting the torso.

This research is not only expanding the understanding of the science of blast and ballistic injuries but it is also helping Laboratory staff develop better methods of testing body armor and, potentially, ways to improve diagnosis of injury and treatment.

IEDs present a threat beyond the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; each year, some 200–300 of these devices detonate outside of war zones. Defeating them in the long run will take more than technology, but APL's research and development efforts across a broad range of scientific and engineering disciplines are having an impact.