Asymmetric warfare is arguably the prevailing pattern of conflict in this century and the final decades of the last. Massive state forces such as those marshalled by the US and the UK endure long military operations, which, although unevenly matched, often reach stalemate with no clear victors or, following a successful air and land offensive, such as the 2003 Iraq invasion, lead to protracted insurgency.

The unevenness of a technologically superior, well-funded nation-state’s fighting force pitted against a ruthless and determined militant movement shows that even a relentless bombing campaign is still unable to destroy an opponent when it has a substantial infrastructure and support system. Insurgents and terrorists may be supported by a nation-state, which distorts the balance. For example, against the “Goliath” of Israel, the “David” of Hezbollah or Hamas with support from Iran will maintain the ability to carry on by firing rockets onto Israeli territory.

Iran’s paramilitary navy

According to a recent US Office of Naval Intelligence report, “Iran’s naval forces: from guerrilla warfare to a modern naval strategy”, Iran has handed over operational control of the vitally strategic Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) – the naval component of the increasingly powerful paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Through the IRGCN, Iran has threatened to cut off almost a third of the world’s oil supply by closing or mining the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It is defending much of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman with 2,000 cruise missiles, many from China, and using small, high-speed vessels armed with missiles and torpedoes.

Small Iranian boats have on several occasions harassed US ships, which have been on the verge of firing on the vessels after being provoked by the IRGCN. Before that, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in April 2003, Royal Navy ships in support of the UK assault on Basra were harassed by four small boats, and US and coalition forces stationed on the Iraqi bank of the Shatt al Arab came under repeated small-arms fire from the Iranian mainland.

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“Asymmetric warfare is arguably the prevailing pattern of conflict in this century and the final decades of the last.”

This marks a new and highly serious development in asymmetric warfare in which a nation-state rather than an insurgency is promoting it through a paramilitary force. The US naval study describes the IRGCN as having grown to be “a non-traditional force, focused on preparing to survive any threat while incorporating asymmetric and novel defences”. Iran is already known as a state sponsor of terrorist groups, most notably Hezbollah, to whom it supplies rockets and other weapons, and evidence is emerging that the Taliban are obtaining Iran-origin IED and rocket components. In hampering and sabotaging the traffic of oil supplies deploying mines using commercial vessels and small boats, Iran’s naval paramilitaries are applying insurgency tactics and methods at sea as part of its country’s policy and unbalancing the proportionality of asymmetric warfare.

Countering this threat will test to the limit the US and other world powers, as the Iranians have threatened that military action will be met with a “sea of fire” with “200,000 US soldiers seriously imperilled in the region”. As stated in the report, the Iranian armed forces have “proven during these 30 years of the revolution that they are ready to defend the territory of their country”.

Inflicting arms embargoes and sanctions on Iran has met with limited success. While Iran’s indigenous defence industry is still dependent on military technology support from Russia, China and North Korea, there is no immediate sign of this drying up. Having added the revolutionary guard to its list of proscribed organisations, the US has begun targeting its business operations and finances, but all such actions may further complicate the diplomatic challenges as well as not actually succeeding to close down what are wider global links and third-party shipments.

Afghanistan: a plague of IEDs

The protracted Afghan campaign is the world’s primary asymmetric conflict. In 2008 and 2009 roadside bomb attacks claimed the highest number of coalition casualties to date; in 2008 almost 4,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated or pre-empted, a 45% increase on 2007. There were more than 7,228 IED incidents in 2009, which resulted in 6,037 deaths and injuries. Some 80% of all casualties are caused by IEDs.

“Insurgents and terrorists may be supported by a nation-state, which distorts the balance.”

The Taliban has also shown improved military tactics, hitting strategic points such as bridges and supply convoys. IEDs, most notably car bombs, are planted or set off by suicide bombers in urban civilian settings, with the enemy often sheltering among densely populated towns and settlements. At the heart of the asymmetric aspect is that the insurgents will happily sacrifice themselves and their children to war and suicide attacks; coalition forces endeavour to protect their own and others’ lives. The bombs incorporate technologies that took the IRA at least a decade to evolve: remote-control detonation, long command wires and pull-cords, radio-controlled devices (RCIEDs), multiple disguise methods, and booby traps such as pressure plates with metallic saw blades.

Radio frequencies often cannot be jammed, and RCIEDs are placed in terrain that complicates surveillance. Command wire detonation, pioneered by the IRA, is replacing radio control because the terrain makes them undetectable. Plastic is replacing metal in IED components, making the devices, which may be planted in a deadly “daisy chain” formation, more difficult to detect and enabling a greater number of easy-to-hide devices to be deployed in multiple locations. Booby traps and concealed trip wires are extremely difficult to spot in the many unpaved dirt roads.

Countermeasures: a work in progress

Even with the massive high-tech strategic and operational resources available to a militarised nation such as the US, the UK or Israel, it is not guaranteed that its military offensives will defeat its insurgent enemies. Terrorists and insurgents have a different notion of victory; survival for the insurgent often means victory. The IEDs of the Taliban may not guarantee they will take over the government, but through their methods they have turned the Afghan operation into a protracted and expensive conflict.

“Iran’s naval paramilitaries are applying insurgency tactics and methods at sea as part of its country’s policy.”

The US dominates the market for counter-IED products and systems. The Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which was set up in 2006, has spent around $6bn on countermeasures such as robotics and jammers to thwart simple electronic trigger devices. However, the organisation’s mission has been criticised as overly complicated.

JIEDDO runs 150 service-specific training programmes including the use of vehicle-based mine-roller kits and man-portable radio-frequency jammers. But UK explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operatives have much to teach their fellow EOD squads from their experience in Northern Ireland. The UK Government has promised a further £150 million for EOD and a 200-strong specialised force for Afghanistan, which will have to address a 38% shortfall of UK ammunition technical officers (ATO) at corporal to staff sergeant rank. Better equipment and C-IED training are vital to address the controversial shortcomings already highlighted following the deaths of several UK ATOs through lack of equipment, including mine detectors, and lack of training to use it.

Remotely operated EOD

Finding IEDs is the most intensive troop activity. Coalition troops found 727 bombs in January 2010, compared with 276 in the same month of 2009. As IED searches are still carried out by foot patrols, the long walk goes on. In the words of Sergeant Jeremy Mitz of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division: “Afghanistan’s terrain is difficult to traverse in vehicles. Dismounted patrols are mandatory [in country].”

“Terrorists and insurgents have a different notion of victory; survival for the insurgent often means victory.”

Training on mine sweeping equipment and detection software includes basic sweep techniques, proper sweep speed and the correct operator stance when using mine detectors.

Robots with cameras are therefore used rather than EOD operators whenever possible, for IED disposal, reconnaissance, hazardous materials detection and combat engineering support. The TALON IV engineer robot has been deployed to remotely clear routes and minefields and to see inside and around vehicles and other barriers. The TALON has a full-swivel manipulator arm combined with a 2m reach, which enables a portable mine detector to be taken out of a soldier’s hands and mounted on the robot, with a 30kg lift to remotely clear heavy debris off IEDs. Smaller, lighter types of bomb-detection robots are being introduced as established robots are too heavy for regular soldiers on patrol and convoy missions.

Of prime importance is protection, which has to be offset against mobility. The main protective countermeasure is the new mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle to protect troops against increasingly powerful IEDs such as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) which zap through the armour of vehicles like a high-velocity copper bullet. Older versions were not adequate for C-IED protection, but the new MRAPs sit higher off the ground, have a V-shaped hull to deflect explosions, and thicker armour to stop shrapnel. The vehicles are equipped with radio jammers and some have ground-penetrating radar. Heavy rollers set off the front of the vehicle to explode booby-trap pressure plates. Of increasing concern, however, is the possibility that the Taliban will simply build bigger and more powerful bombs. In May 2008 the majority of IEDs were about 12kg or less, they have grown to around 230kg-680kg of bulk explosives to destroy the new generation of MRAPs.

Intelligence and interception

Acquiring and effectively using both weapons intelligence and information gained about insurgent movements, infiltrating communities, and gaining deeper understanding of the terrorist mentality, doctrines and tactics are of increasing priority. In asymmetric terms, allied forces have the technology and the electronics, but the Taliban have their ears to the ground. Of increasing importance is intercepting the many links in the supply chains of Taliban and al-Qaeda bomb-makers. There is growing evidence of global supplies of components used in IEDs; JIEDDO has investigated an al-Qaeda front company in Iraq supplying bomb components, and shut it down. But the difficult terrain gives the Taliban a tactical advantage in their heartlands which support the supply chains.

“The protracted Afghan campaign is the world’s primary asymmetric conflict.”

Weapons intelligence is gained from defusing IEDs rather than blowing them up to identify the bombers and their methods. Counter-IED teams specialising in forensics and evidence collection – getting “left of the boom” – have begun deploying to battalions in theatre with the goal of targeting networks of bomb-makers and builders. Explosive signatures, chemical traces and blast patterns provide invaluable information about IED production, deployment, and the supply network. For example, ammonium nitrate (AN), which is now used in 90% of Taliban bombs, originated as fertiliser provided to farmers by aid organisations and then turned up in Taliban safe houses for bomb-making. As a countermeasure US forces have been offering farmers cheaper, safer versions of AN. The Afghan Government has banned it, but this is not guaranteed to prevent supplies of AN, or alternative homemade explosives being used.

Observation of the ground is vital to prevent more IEDs being planted in an area where they have been found, defused and dug up. The US Army’s $1.5bn base expeditionary targeting surveillance systems-combined (BETSS-C) includes rapid aerostat initial deployment (RAID) towers studded with cameras, electro-optical / infrared sensors and radars for ground intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The equipment can transmit real-time data, images and video via 3D display to army soldiers and leaders many kilometres away. Once an enemy is detected, BETSS-C users can conduct air or field artillery strikes. Task Force ODIN is a JIEDDO project for intensive roadside IED watch with wide-angle video cameras and radar deployed on civilian aircraft, which watches for suspect activity, such as digging or laying wire in areas with no irrigation canals. But it often boils down to basic human intelligence: spotting anomalies at the roadside, an unusual-shaped boulder or something like that which wasn’t there before. In the end, intuition, improvisation and intelligence are among the most essential countermeasures, the very skills base employed by the terrorists themselves.

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence & Security Systems International.