They claimed thousands of lives, dismembered soldiers, derailed advancing attacks and destroyed combat vehicles under enemy fire all while U.S. soldiers searched for and attacked violent insurgents.

They are IEDs, a persistent and lethal threat to U.S. forces which, perhaps surprisingly to some, continue to pose a serious risk as the U.S. pivots to great-power competition. 

During years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs and roadside bombs were a consistent, serious threat responsible for massive amounts of U.S. casualties. However, a key dynamic that may now be slightly overlooked is that IEDs will continue to present significant threats in an era of great power competition. Of course, the Pentagon needs to sustain its readiness to fight counterinsurgency campaigns to the extent they come up, despite the decline in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, it would seem clear that any kind of advancing ground force, including a heavily armored mechanized force or dismounted infantry, would need to be prepared to face mines, roadside bombs and vehicle-borne IEDs. Unmanned or robotic platforms armed with explosives likely present a fast-expanding threat. 

Iraq and Afghanistan proved that even some heavy armored vehicles were vulnerable to IEDs, and adversaries became increasingly adept and planting and detonating them. Using more simply configured garage door openers to explode IEDs evolved into cell phones and other types of advanced, multi-frequency triggers. Some used pressure plates, advanced electronics and timing-oriented detonation devices. In response, the U.S. Army quickly engineered electronic warfare (EW) detection methods and various advanced sensors, coupled with IED-clearing robots to counter the threat, yet the lethal nature of roadside bombs continued.

All of these combat experiences now inform ongoing U.S. Army preparations for major-power, full-scale war. Tactical vehicles will still need to transport fuel, supplies and soldiers; many advancing vehicles are unable to drive off-road, making them potentially more vulnerable to IED attacks; daisy-chained strings of multiple IED can even damage 70-ton Abrams tanks to some extent. Advancing armored columns “moving-to-contact” in a massive war engagement will likely need a host of counter-IED support to include surveillance drones, fixed-wing air sensor support, EW protections and forward-positioned unmanned systems. Fortunately, maneuvering robotic IED defenses and longer-range, higher-resolution sensors, including laser optics, seismic and electronic detection technologies have advanced considerably, a circumstance likely to favor forces advancing in IED-laded areas. At the same time, there is no question that roadside bombs, and perhaps vehicle integrated explosives, are something U.S. war planners take very seriously. 

All of these factors contribute to a current Army effort to build more Double-V Hull Stryker vehicles, reconfigured platforms engineered with blast-debris dispersing V-shapes underneath the vehicle. The initiative, which includes both new-build vehicles and efforts to reconfigure existing flat-bottomed Strykers, first emerged more than five years ago as an Urgent Operational Need from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army worked with General Dynamic Land Systems to fast-track the vehicles, with the specific hope of better safeguarding Stryker crews from IED attacks. Now, the Army is advancing a deal with GDLS to continue production of Stryker Double-V hulls through a large $2 billion contract. 

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense

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