As in Iraq where it became the most effective weapon of insurgents, the improvised explosive device has raised the casualty count significantly for U.S. forces in Afghanistan the past two years.
A surge in ground forces and a change of strategy, to have more U.S. troops dismount from vehicles more to mix with the Afghan populace, has produced a more target-rich environment for homemade bombs.
In 2008, IEDs killed 68 American service members in Afghanistan. The number rose to 168 in 2009 and to 268 last year, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. The number of troops wounded by IEDs nearly tripled to 3,371 in Afghanistan last year, up from 1,211 in 2009 and 270 in 2008.
The Joint IED Defeat Organization, with its $2.8 billion annual budget, is responsible for countering the IED threat. Mitchell Howell, deputy director of Joint IED Defeat for rapid acquisition and technology, said recently that the organization has made steady progress against IEDs even though no "silver bullet solution" has been found.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
He said the enemy adjusts tactics and techniques in response to U.S. military countermeasures.
"Those guys don't have a long, drawn out materiel acquisition system," Howell said. When coalition forces devise a solution to one IED technology, "within weeks if not days, or sometimes hours, the bad guys change the manner in which they deploy" IEDs. "They are always watching what we do, and they change a bit more frequently than what our traditional acquisition system is designed to accommodate."
Nevertheless, Howell said, Joint IED Defeat's combination of operations -- training the force, uncovering and attacking IED networks, and developing tactics and technologies to defeat devices -- has saved lives and steadily is making deployment of IEDs a riskier business for enemies.
"You can judge that by the methods insurgents tend to shift to," Howell said. "We are seeing a shift back towards suicide-borne IED folks because we have limited their ability to explode IEDs on the roads in some villages."
In an agrarian economy like Afghanistan, fertilizer and other bomb-making chemicals are plentiful. Because almost every IED uses electrical blasting caps to detonate, one "silver bullet solution" would be the ability to "pre-detonate everything," Howell said. But most IEDs are buried, making pre-detonation difficult.
"If you're going to pre-detonate a buried item, you need to create enough residual charge between the two wires to cause that device to explode. To do that through a medium other than air is very difficult," Howell said. "You would need an incredible power source."
So far no tactical concept has been found to bring that sort of capability to a battlefield terrain like Afghanistan.
"It's a daunting task," Howell said. "That's not to say we aren't pursuing that. We are, and in great detail. But (given) limitations of physics and other scientific means, it doesn't seem that's a viable solution set."
What about overhead technology to detect disturbed ground?
"There are many techniques and technologies we are applying that attempt to do just that," Howell said.
Howell, a retired Army infantry officer, said the Taliban might be a largely illiterate "but they are not dumb."
They make swift and simple innovations to respond to IED countermeasures. Their first IEDs, for example, used radio frequencies to detonate. U.S. forces responded with electronics that created signal-jamming bubbles around vehicles. So IED makers began using "victim-operated" detonation switches that vehicles would run over.
Troops then began deploying rollers on the front of vehicles to pre-detonate IEDs, and the enemy shifted to using buried wires and hidden spotters to trigger bombs as the troops passed.
"We decided to put out dismounted patrols and search for command wires because there are ways to find them (and then) roll up bad guys hiding behind the hills," Howell said. Taliban now use multiple triggers including passive infrared receivers that detect the heat of passing vehicles.
"We have solutions for all of those," Howell said. "But that's just to tell you we have a living, breathing, thinking, innovated and agile enemy, and that makes the IED fight very difficult."