Technology lessons from the Iraq war

William Saletan has an excellent piece in Slate on the US military’s struggle against “improvised explosive devices” in Iraq and Afghanistan. IEDs have be responsible for more than half of all casualties in Iraq (2,000) and wounded 20,000 more. From January to July, there was one IED explosion attack every 15 minutes. What are the lessons of war from this? I’ll summarize Saletan’s eight.

1. IEDs shift the orientation of war from space to time. Consider: a sniper is hard to hit because he’s hidden and far away, but the safer his distance the harder to kill. IEDs eliminate this tradeoff — the killer delivers the explosion to exactly where he wants it and then only has to worry about timing, either manually or automatically: “A bomb with 100 pounds of explosives detonating beneath an armored vehicle was equivalent to a direct hit from a six-gun artillery battery, but with an accuracy no gunner could hope to achieve.” Conclusion: you can’t defeat IEDs in space, you have to fight them in time and take out the killer when he’s planting the bomb.

2. Morality is expensive. Terroists in Iraq plant bombs, slink away, and let the Americans worry about finding it. That’s even easier when they don’t care whom they kill. With an automatic infrared trigger, you can be hundreds of miles away when your bomb goes off. If it wipes out a school bus, so be it. Meanwhile, senior American officers have withheld IED-fighting equipment, at mortal risk to their own troops, in part because it might damage Iraqi gas or power lines. The purpose of IEDs has been to kill enough Americans with enough regularity to make the public demand that our troops come home. The insurgents are winning because they care less about death than we do.

3. Machines are crucial. Machines they’re brilliant, but they don’t bleed. Four years ago, the United States had six working military robots. Now it has 6,000. One model detects explosives from molecules in the air, while others inspect and defuse suspected bombs or get blown up trying. Since the public can’t stand death, replace soldiers with lifeless proxies.

4. Simplicity beats complexity. We have $800,000 custom-made gizmos that take years to design, build, test, and refine. The insurgents have consumer electronics, fertilizer and egg timers, and walkie-talkies. They can trade IEDs for robots all day. Another advantage is that it’s constantly evolving.

5. Communications technology is accelerating enemy speed. Insurgents use the Internet to share bomb recipes, emplacement methods, and updates on U.S. countermeasures, even advertise IED services on Web sites, complete with video of previous blasts. They distribute bomb-making manuals on CDs. One recent Web-posted manual was titled “How to Disable U.S. ‘Joint IED Neutralizer.’” US strategists thought they could snuff out IEDs by going after bomb makers, but the insurgents don’t operate like the Pentagon — click “download” and you’ve got better intel than Dick Cheney. The enemy’s turnaround from discovering new U.S. anti-IED technology to posting instructions on how to defeat it is down to five days.

6. Humans are still better than machines. Humans adapt, machines don’t. Insurgents can disguise IEDs as rocks, curbstones, corpses, and car parts. Slight variations in flight trajectory or wind-blown trash confound our efforts to digitally identify IED-related activity in aerial images. One army report says that the best IED spotters are soldiers who have hunted or fished. Some of our best countermeasures have been random or ad hoc. We’ve reconfigured obsolete jammers, put “hillbilly armor” on our vehicles, and used truck-mounted toasters and leaf blowers to clear out IEDs. If the enemy can’t predict our behavior, he can’t plan. As anyone who plays any strategy video game knows, you can predict enemy behaviour far more easily if its a robot.

7. Human limits also limit technology. Some of our technology fails because it asks too much of us. We designed a drone to be operated remotely by troops in a trailing vehicle, only to discover that riding in one vehicle while virtually driving another made soldiers carsick. We built an IED armor kit that made vehicle doors so heavy soldiers can’t open them. If humans can’t operate your machine, your machine is a failure.

8. Cyborgs. If humans are too precious to hunt IEDs, and if machines are too obtuse, use animals. The military has explored the idea of bomb-detecting bees monitored by miniature cameras, IED-sniffing dogs through radio receivers attached to their collars. The bomber operates his IED from a safe distance. Why not do the same with your dog?

Problems: bees soon die, wasting their explosives detection training, and a working dog easily gets distracted after 30 minutes. So, we’d have to take the cyborg concept a bit further, putting silicon technology directly into the bodies of animals and, eventually, soldiers. But that’s a story for another war.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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7 Responses to Technology lessons from the Iraq war

  1. Mark says:

    Regardless of all the above details, the US will still lose, sooner or later. The real question is whether or not the corrupt central government in DC falls as well. We can all hope this over-reach will be fatal.

  2. Jayson says:

    (Don’t tell PETA about #8….)

  3. Hamilton says:

    Well Mark, if that happens then I hope the resulting chaos takes out you and your family as well! cheers you fool.

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  6. deichmans says:

    Be careful with #3 — it could erode any semblance of legitimacy your “people” have in the battlespace. Trading our machines for their lives can be easily turned into a recruiting tool for radical nihilists (and threaten any claim we may have to “jus in bello”). MountainRunner has done a number of great critiques on robotics in warfare, the most recent here:

  7. puttputt says:

    Don’t be in Iraq, and there will be no IED.

    Following the logic behind this IED robot, I am sure robots to torture humans at abu ghraib is not far away.