The feeling has been described by survivors as falling. Also as soaring. There’s a flash and a shrieking darkness and then the weightless moments of maximum kinetic terror when the detonation blasts you beyond gravity. After the boom there is just distorted wreckage, and dust and pain and shouting, for the survivors at least.
All the armour in the world and it just doesn’t really matter. The vehicles get tougher but the blasts get bigger. There is simply no good way to keep Canadian soldiers safe once they get caught in the boom of the roadside bombs, the suicide bombs, the double-stacked shells of ancient Russian ordnance, the white Toyota Corollas packed with cheap dynamite, simply no way to protect them once they get hit by any of the things now known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
Part of what makes IEDs so hard to counter is that they can take on so many forms. They can be small, simple charges packed into plastic jugs and buried at the side of the road. They can be grenades embedded in walls, old artillery shells buried beneath asphalt, or they can be several hundreds of pounds of explosives wheelbarrowed into underground culverts. They can be carried in cars, trucks, taxis, bikes, by donkey and, of course, by people.
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While nobody’s releasing statistics on exactly what percentage of Canadian convoys were getting hit by IEDs through late 2008 and early 2009, it was a lot. Based on a literally seat-of-the-pants survey done in the spring of 2008, roughly one in seven trips outside the wire of Kandahar airfield resulted in some kind of IED incident.
At this point now in early 2009, more than 45 Canadian soldiers have been blasted to their deaths by the IEDs, by the insurgent bombers. It is a titanically unglorious way to die and a painfully hard tactic for any military to defend against.
Armour itself is not sufficient. Since 2004 the Canadian Forces has been engaged in an unending cycle of buying tougher and tougher vehicles in an effort to keep its soldiers safe. In 2004 the open-topped Iltis jeep was replaced with the slightly tougher Mercedes G-Wagon, which was soon up-armoured but didn’t last much beyond 2006 before it was restricted to base duty after many soldiers lost lives and limbs. Then came the introduction of the RG-31 Nyala which was thought to be pretty safe itself until the insurgents adapted to the new challenge and started to achieve catastrophic kills even on that vehicle, such as the attack in July 2007 that killed six Canadians.
While new vehicles are constantly being tested, there are no panaceas. Afghan insurgents recently managed to destroy a United States Marine MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), commonly thought to be the toughest patrol vehicle ever made.
A few years ago, the U.S. military conducted a no-holds-barred assessment of their options for defeating the IED threat in Iraq. Its conclusion: build a U.S.-only road network through the country, a suggestion so impractical that it basically amounts to admitting there was no useful solution.
As a weapons system, IEDs are fiendishly ingenious. Not only is it hard to stop the bombers, but the bombs have far-reaching strategic and tactical effects. The strategic effect is clear. Each Canadian killed means bad headlines and another funeral and one more blow against the Canadian public’s perception of the mission. Beyond the trauma of the boom, it is this strategic effect that is most dangerous. It is literally a death by a thousand cuts.
In addition to the convoys that get hit and the soldiers who get blown up, the IEDs have other, more tactical effects. The threat of IEDs limits and shapes almost every single aspect of every single operation the Canadian battle group in Kandahar might hope to conduct because they radically restrict freedom of movement through the Afghan countryside. Any kind of road move off the few main routes requires a painfully slow route-clearing operation and/or just simply staying off the roads altogether and busting through farmers’ fields. Neither option is very good.
The movement-limiting effects of the IEDs impact more than just the military. The bombs force road closures in the worst cases, which leaves whole villages basically deserted, but even when the roads remain open they have an effect on the normal flow of traffic necessary for markets to remain open and farmers to get their crops into the cities and for normal development to occur.
Part of the difficulty in stopping the IED threat is that the regular forces don’t really have the necessary capabilities. Infantry are good at holding ground, but in the numbers that they exist in they’re not so well-suited to stopping the IED cells from doing their work. That’s not to say they’re just helplessly rumbling around Kandahar province waiting to get blown up, but the main force isn’t really set up to conduct the kind of intelligence collection and investigative combat necessary to disrupt the insurgents.
Starting in 2008, an almost entirely new entity was born into the Canadian war-fighting system. It’s called the Counter-IED task force and its mission is to stop the bombers.
The C-IED task force officially stood up when former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier signed a directive creating the new organization. And while they’re not exactly secret, they’re certainly not looking for too much attention either.
Colonel Omer Lavoie was appointed to be the first commander of the C-IED unit. Lavoie was a fitting choice for the job, as it would be a real challenge to find another senior CF officer that has seen the many faces of the insurgency in Afghanistan as Lavoie did during his time leading the Canadian battle group there in 2006-07.
Based at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, Lavoie is in charge of nothing less than trying to crack the core of the insurgency in Kandahar province.
The hard kernel of the C-IED mission isn’t all that tough to grasp: there are huge networks of people behind these bombs. There are financiers. There are guys who supply and build the bombs, guys transporting them, planting them and guys detonating them. The C-IED task force is attacking this network.
In many ways, the offensive against the IED network could be considered the central front in this unconventional war. If C-IED succeeds, the mission succeeds. “A lot of good work has gone into neutralizing an IED once it’s found or mitigating the blast of an IED if it goes off, but we wanted to shift that focus from being device-centric to going after the networks that were planting the IEDs in the first place,” said Lavoie. “We’re trying to start targeting the networks and preventing and detecting IEDs long before they’re ever even in place. So it’s all about bringing the fight ‘left of the boom.’”
What Lavoie and his team are doing is attacking the enemy’s strategy, responding to an unconventional attack with unconventional forces. “We are attacking the network. And that means everything from going after the very, very high level targets within the IED systems, from the financiers and suppliers right down to the local level, who’s the triggerman and the guy who’s digging the hole in the side of the road?”
Attacking the network is all about gathering intelligence. Accordingly, the C-IED task force is heavily laden with secret-acronym agencies like CSE (Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic spies), CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service, normal spies), JTF2 and CSOR (military special forces) and others. “We’re detecting and predicting where these things are and, more importantly, where these things are being made, how they’re being financed and transported, so that we can intercept them at that level, using both conventional forces and special forces,” said Lavoie.
The basic idea is that the C-IED task force gathers the intelligence and then raids the bad guys, killing or capturing the insurgents responsible for creating the IEDs. While Lavoie wouldn’t relate any specific details about the ongoing operations, he did make it clear that the battle was ongoing. “I’m not going to give any trade secrets away because the Taliban can read the magazine like everybody else can,” he said. “So without getting into specifics, we have certainly conducted C-IED operations in theatre, where networks have been targeted, and we were successful when we conducted operations. We took out cells of guys who were building IEDs.”
The C-IED organization has a squadron deployed in Kandahar under the command of a major. Back in 2008, the man in charge of the C-IED squadron was Major Dan Shaver.
As Lavoie described it, Shaver functions as an ‘arms adviser’ to the battle group commander in much the same way that an artillery commander or combat engineer commander would.
In addition though, as Shaver said during a briefing last year in Kandahar, the C-IED squadron also runs its own operations and does its own thing. “Why do IEDs pose such a challenge?” asked Shaver. “First of all, they are unlike conventional munitions. IEDs can be made from homemade explosives. They can be both electric and non-electric. There are a whole series of methods of initiation. There’s some that are victim operated, some that are command operated, and timed are usually the main categories. And it’s a highly variable weapon which has proved to be very challenging.
Shaver compares the network to a crime syndicate. For Shaver, the key to unravelling the syndicate is to piece together an intelligence picture largely built on information gathered from bomb sites. At the core of the C-IED squadron are the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams: the wildly brave guys in bomb suits who creep up on the jury-rigged bombs and defuse them so they can be studied for clues. “What that exploitation does is create intelligence—technical and tactical intelligence which allows us to figure out who these guys are who are building the bombs,” explained Shaver. “And these are the guys we really want to go after. The guy who handles the trigger is the low man on the totem pole. The guys who really drive this type of attack are the suppliers, the financiers and the transporters. That’s where we want to be fighting.”
Despite the new focus on attacking the network of IED planting insurgents, Canadians are still dying. As Lavoie notes, there is no panacea to the IED problem and, indeed, the effort to counter the IED network is essentially the same as cracking the insurgency itself. Meanwhile, every Canadian death is a victory for the bad guys.
“At the strategic level, it’s a problem,” said Lavoie. “They’re not going to defeat us at the tactical level with IEDs, just like they couldn’t defeat us at the tactical level with ambushes or anything else because they just don’t have the command and control structure and they have so many weaknesses in their system that they’re never going to beat us at the tactical level. So, clearly they’re trying to defeat us at the strategic level. And every soldier we lose over there is a huge loss and tragedy and they’re trying to wear down the national support for the operation in this way.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that right now the number one enemy tactic that’s hurting and killing our soldiers is the IEDs. And the statistics sadly support that. So I think the public needs to know that the CF and the government are taking a very proactive approach. And that’s why this capability was stood up, so that it’s not a matter of soldiers just rolling the dice every time they go outside to the wire, hoping it’s not going to be a bad day. It’s now very proactive. We are trying to stop these IEDs from being laid in the first place. It’s important that the public knows about this, as we clearly recognize that our success relies on public support.”
While the long-term prospects for success are mixed, Lavoie does hope that eventually the task of taking down the IED networks can become an Afghan operation, and one that is based more on police work and legal prosecutions in court instead of soldiers kicking doors down and shooting people. “In the end, we probably won’t beat the insurgents with bullets and bombs. So once a relatively secure environment has been reached or stabilized over there, how are you going to ultimately beat them? If you can give the Afghans, especially the kids, better options for the future—a good economy, good government, a bit of development, and make the next generations feel they have other choices than to support insurgents. That’s the goal.”
Terror Of The Network
Though issues of secrecy prevent the C-IED task force from revealing much of its work in Kandahar, it’s still possible to make a rough estimation of how this network attack works in practice. The first step is IED awareness. New troops coming into theatre are briefed by the C-IED squad, with the idea being that if troops discover an IED, then the C-IED squad should be alerted and the IED should be watched until the squad arrives. Once they do, the squad’s EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technicians defuse the bomb and then, either on site or back at a lab, examine it for clues about its origins.
Then, using a combination of police-style crime scene investigation and military-style intelligence work, the unit builds up a picture of who made the bomb, who paid for the bomb to be made, where the materials to make the bomb came from, where the money came from, and who might have organized the whole network. They build this picture using any and all means available, from human informants to interrogations of detainees to examining financial records to electronic signal interceptions from spy satellites high in the sky.
The next step is to disrupt the network. If they can figure out where the bombs are being made, special forces will raid the site. If they can locate a financier, they will try to kill or capture him. If they can find out where the raw bomb-making materials are coming from, they will interdict the supply.
Since it’s so hard to stop the bombs once they’re in the hands of the local insurgents, and impossible to keep soldiers safe once they’re in the ground, then moving the fight ‘left of the boom’ is the only tactical choice, despite the difficulty.
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