Ukraine Goes ‘Back To The Future’ with IEDs
After the United States and coalition partners invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, it was not long before improvised explosive devices – sometimes called roadside bombs or simply IEDs – began to take a toll. Less sophisticated at first, and initially underestimated by senior United States military leaders because of the inability of IEDs in the first months of the invasion to significantly damage combat vehicles, IED incidents grew rapidly and became devastating in their sophistication and effectiveness. In his 2017 article, Jason Shell concluded “60 percent of all American fatalities in Iraq and half of all American fatalities in Afghanistan, more than 3,500 in total, were caused by IEDs.” Additionally, in its heyday, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was producing IEDs on a truly industrial scale, and enjoying significant battlefield successes until a concerted effort was made to eliminate the group. To understand where Ukraine is going on the IED front, we must first return to the past. Borrowing a phrase from the famous movie of the same name, we must go “back to the future.”
Since the discovery of gunpowder around the 10th century AD by the Chinese as described in the Wujing Zongyao manuscripts, humanity has found ways to use explosives in various conflicts. The current war between Russia and Ukraine, the latest iteration of which began on February 24, 2022, is no exception. Now more than 50 days in length, the war has featured conventional force-on-force engagements, but the outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian military has demonstrated great creativity and use of asymmetric and unconventional tacticsin exacting a very bloody toll on invading Russian army units.
In a series of Tweets starting on February 28th and thru the present, I have been both predicting and describing an insurgency using weaponized commercial drones (also known as unmanned aerial systems – UAS) and improvised explosive devices – IEDs – of the same sort and variety as what long targeted the United States and coalition forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Drones have already burst on the scene in a significant way, and so too have IEDs increasingly made an appearance, beginning in mid-March 2022 based upon my analysis of the social media posts which have gushed steadily from the region.
As Russian forces and their proxies attempt to make the best out of an invasion that has, by all accounts, gone spectacularly bad for them, Ukrainian special forces (known by the English acronym SSO, corresponding to the Ukrainian language words Сили Cпеціальних Oперацій – Special Operations Forces) have begun to effectively use various forms of IEDs to strike Russian forces, something I expect to accelerate as the war pivots to a different phase, as evidenced by apparent Russian attempts to concentrate combat power in the Donbas region and to create a land bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia.
The IEDs I Saw Used in Iraq Were Ever Improving in Design and Effectiveness
As I told Fox News in an interview on March 6, 2022, I watched the beginnings of the Iraqi insurgency develop in 2003 when I volunteered to deploy there as a Department of Defense civilian attached to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). While IEDs were not in the ISG’s mission set, as a long-time explosives expert and former U.S. Army armored cavalry scout, I was concerned about the IEDs I saw there. At first, there were relatively unsophisticated short-range electronic devices using long-range cordless telephones, wireless doorbells, and car alarms – what I refer to as 1st generation devices – but in about two months, I watched as Iraqi insurgents demonstrated a rapid capability improvement, eventually sitting in on meetings with the staff of then LTG Ricardo Sanchez, bomb technicians, and the FBI on how to deal with the growing threat. The result would eventually come to be known as the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell, which contended with ever-increasing sophistication by Iraqi insurgents, Al-Qa’ida, ISIL, and others. This was soon aggravated considerably by what open-source reporting has attributed to Iranian forces supplying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), whose supersonic copper, aluminum or steel tadpole-shaped slugs proved deadly against United States vehicles, including up-armored Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Strykers. To be clear, the Iranians did not invent EFPs, but they saw an opportunity to proliferate then uncommon technology, and they took it. The extensive use of EFPs in Iraq by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) personnel is well understood by the Department of Defense (DOD) and others but rarely spoken of publicly. In an affidavit, in support of a plaintiff’s lawsuit seeking to recover damages from the Government of Iran in the case Karcher v. Islamic Republic of Iran, former DOD senior executive Russell McIntyre, a U.S. Army Ranger and special forces officer with deep knowledge of counter-IED operations, provided the court with trial testimony (now public record), and expert knowledge of Iranian EFP usage and manufacturing. This testimony was accepted by the federal trial court, and it detailed the activities of IRGC-QF forces in their professional production and smuggling of EFPs, which were then used to attack and kill United States and coalition forces in Iraq, particularly between 2004 and 2011. The court granted default judgment against Iran for these attacks.
For four years, I served as the senior executive deputy director of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), the last seven months as acting director. The TEDAC, a component of the FBI’s laboratory division, blends forensics, intelligence, research and development, advanced engineering, and deployments, studying and exploiting the technology used in IEDs to help defeat them. One of the things I watched develop since the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency is how technology to produce deadly IEDs and drone delivery systems increased dramatically over the years of the United States’ involvement. What I have previously referred to as 2nd generation technology (things like passive infrared and dual tone multi-frequency triggers) flourished, often in combination with cellular phones. Similarly, 3rd generation technology including software-driven, plug-and-play devices like Arduino microcontrollers and even complex printed circuit boards, poses a challenge for even advanced counter-IED warfighters and scientists. All of this brings us to present-day Ukraine and a subtle but noticeable shift in Ukrainian tactics, techniques, and procedures.
The basics of an IED, including buried explosives, vehicles packed with commercial, homemade, or even military explosives (aka VBIEDs), and both EFPs and platter charges are not rocket science. Al Qa’ida, ISIL, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army successfully employed various IEDs for decades, giving the United States and our coalition partners vast experience in countering this tactic. Similarly, VBIEDs have been used across Europe, Africa, and Asia by terrorist groups, albeit more sporadically than in the Middle East. Explosively trained personnel in the Ukrainian military are well equipped to manufacture such devices, using sophisticated fusing and firing systems if needed, although based upon my TEDAC experience, even low-tech methods such as pressure plates or multi-lead wire for command detonation work extremely well and cannot be jammed.
US and NATO Forces Have Spent Years Training Ukrainian in the use of IEDs
While some presumed the Russians would easily overwhelm the less equipped Ukrainians through conventional and 2014-style hybrid forces, the Ukrainians have made excellent use of small unit guerilla techniques and ambushes, along with hit and run attacks using a variety of weapons; things they would have been taught by U.S. Army Green Berets, who are documented as having trained the Ukrainians beginning in 2014. The United States is not alone in conducting such training, according to a December 2020 story from the United Kingdom (U.K.) Ministry of Defense, Ukrainian troops received counter improvised explosive device (C-IED) training from U.K. forces. Such training, based upon my personal experience, can cut both ways, both showing how to defeat the device, while also necessarily showing something of how the device functioned. Finally, it is well documented that fighters from western nations, including the United States, have been volunteering for groups like the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, and some of these volunteers are reportedly special operations veterans who served in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, with firsthand experience facing IEDs. Logically, this experience would equip them to offer advice on placement and construction as well as small unit and guerilla tactics, using what they experienced in combat.
How Can IEDs be Employed in Ukraine?
As for VBIEDs, their prolific use in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria make them an obvious choice against Russian forces. Given the physics of unfocused explosions, where blast effects go in all directions, VBIEDs are best targeted against logistics support vehicles and intermediate armored vehicles like BMP-3, BMD-4, Pantsir-S1, BTR-80 series, etc. While a very large buried charge or mine could disable or kill a tank, the Ukrainians already have Javelins, the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, Carl Gustav, and PG-7VR rounds to accomplish that goal. In congested urban environments, particularly where large numbers of buildings have been destroyed or numerous vehicles clutter the streets, VBIEDs are an ideal weapon, and relatively simple to produce. Just as the United States and our coalition partners faced this nightmare and the British struggled against such weapons for decades in London and Northern Ireland, so too will inexperienced Russian troops as they attempt to take and hold cities.
EFP and roadside bomb technology, having proven its lethality against United States and coalition forces, should become be a top focus for Ukrainian fighters. The Ukrainians, with their modern military, have large quantities of their own explosives, clearly now supplemented by captured Russian material. As such, they can make vast numbers of EFPs, VBIEDs, and roadside bombs, while the Russians have virtually no combat experience protecting against them. Buried in normal roadside debris, or even concealed in artificial rocks as has been the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, they will be virtually impossible to find and quite deadly.
Because they caused so many casualties amongst United States and coalition forces, some may believe the EFP is difficult to produce or requires some form of advanced manufacturing prowess; this is incorrect. EFPs are easy to recreate with moderate efficiency and the only significant challenge is the production of the concave copper plates, something easily done with a hydraulic press. That said, while access to hydraulic presses, quality metallurgy, or a machine shop makes mass production easier, I personally hand-hammered copper disks into rough shape in 2006 when my team and I were teaching special operations police in Tbilisi Georgia about the post-blast investigation. While not elegant in appearance, those EFPs worked just fine against our target truck and gave the Georgians valuable forensic experience on what to look for, in addition to how such devices are constructed. In speaking with a retired FBI special agent bomb technician who has previously deployed to conflict zones, he related that the Iraqis even “sand-casted” copper plates for EFPs in the early years of that insurgency, and while that technique did not produce high fidelity plates, they were nevertheless at least partly functional. There is no reason the Ukrainian armed forces, particularly the SSO, are unable to replicate these tactics and produce high-quality plates for EFPs, as Ukraine has significant heavy industry capabilities with access to machine shops and presses.
A Chronology of Photographic Evidence for IED Usage in Ukraine
While Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are not the only vehicles for capturing and sharing video from Ukraine, I have found them to be particularly useful in looking for evidence of IED usage such as roadside bombs. The first buried IED or possibly mine attack I saw in Ukraine was posted on March 15, 2022, and while this is possibly a TM-62 family (from the blast effects) anti-tank mine, it could also be a buried charge. In the first picture, a tank is visible in the lower center of the left photo, and the red arrow indicated the approximate location of the buried device. The picture on the right depicts the aftermath.
On March 20, 2022, a Facebook page purported to be from Ukrainian special operations forces (Командування Сил спеціальних операцій ЗС України) posted a multi-IED attack on a Russian convoy. The date of this attack is impossible to verify as there is no visible snow on the ground, but it is entirely consistent with a “daisy chain” IED.
In a March 23, 2022 Twitter user @UAWeapons posted a still from Twitter user @RyanOLearyIA22 featuring what appears to be the preparation of two 152 mm artillery shells and a block of TNT into an IED. The following day, Mr. O’Leary released a short video with additional details.
On March 25, 2022, Twitter user @UAWeapons posted a TikTok video by user @dydy_saha0 depicting obvious damage to a Russian vehicle and a crater approximately 1 meter wide, consistent with a small buried IED or mine; while it was too small for a TM-62 mine or large IED, it was nevertheless effective.
The most complex and significant attack I have yet to see in terms of the largest number of individual charges occurred on March 28, 2022, with no less than 5 “daisy chained” charges. Interestingly, the blast appearing in the center of the video could potentially indicate the use of an EFP, because the smoke color is very consistent with an over fuel-rich plasticized explosive like Composition C-4, Semtex, PVV-5A, etc. In personally preparing shots using C-4 and watching many more, the prompt orange thermal effect followed by inky black smoke is a signature of such explosives. One possible (but I would caution not the only) reason for seeing different smoke in the center shot as compared to the other charges is the use of an EFP, although it could also be a buried charge utilizing one of the aforementioned explosives, with the other charges being ordnance.
Yet another sophisticated attack first aired on March 31, 2022 posted by Twitter user @Osinttechnical and it employed what appear to be three “daisy-chained” IEDs, likely some form of military ordnance. Of particular interest here seems to be the use of a drone to aid in triggering. In this still taken from the posted video, the red-colored arrow shows a drone’s focus aiming point (the crosshairs), while the yellow arrow shows a long white line off to the side of the road. When the vehicle shown here crosses the white line it enters the “kill box,” and the charges are initiated.
The Ukrainians are not the only force using IEDs, as this footage posted by @UAWeapons on April 7, 2022, purportedly shows a Russian planted IED. This shell appears to already be packed with plastic explosives in the fuse well (the light-colored putty-like material visible at the very top of the shell), and wires are visible trailing in the direction of the two Ukrainian bomb technicians visible in the photo. The tactic of using guard rails to hide devices was something I personally saw used in Iraq.
The final and most recent evidence of IED manufacture comes from another post by Twitter user @UAWeapons on April 11, 2022, where Ukrainian forces are shown with bark camouflaged and unfused 120 mm mortar rounds. The red-colored material is detonating cord used to explosively connect the mortar rounds and help initiate them, typically by packing the fuse wells with a plastic explosive, just as shown above.
The Growing Insurgency in Ukraine
I think the photographic evidence is clear that the usage of IEDs in Ukraine has begun and is slowly increasing. So long as force-on-force engagements continue to be the status quo ante, the use of IEDs can be relegated to an occasional specialized tactic. While much attention has been focused on the use of drones used for both attack and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance vectors, the use of IEDs in all forms will surely accelerate as they are an inexpensive and effective ambush tactic to use against Russian forces, who seem to favor long and poorly protected convoys. To augment the use of antitank weapons, I would also expect clear usage of EFPs to soon emerge showing destroyed Russian vehicles with copper-tinged holes characteristic of molten slug impact, penetration, and spalling. This tactic is not only militarily effective but will serve as a potent form of PSYOP. That said, I also expect to see some form of guerilla naval engagements. Although far less common than their flying cousins, the phenomenon of autonomous or semi-autonomous explosive-laden drone boats has ample precedent. This is not actually new technology, because while little known, the Office of Strategic Services, (forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency) had a working kamikaze ship program in 1944 with a project called the Campbell missile, which used radio and – incredibly enough – television signals to control the explosives-laden craft, steering the weapon into an enemy ship using television signals so an operator could “see” what was in front of the small motorboat. Also, consider the much more modern example of Iranian or Houthi style Shark-33 variants; one such drone badly damaged the Saudi frigate Al-Madinah in February 2017, and in April 2021 another Saudi ship was targeted in their port of Yanbu. Of course, the USS Cole was also severely damaged by a boat laden with explosives as well, killing 17 sailors along with the suicide bombers on the small craft. Because Ukrainian troops were recently pictured using small boats for alleged riverine operations, and given their paucity of conventional naval forces (notwithstanding the successful attack on the Russian naval ship Moskva), adopting this attack tactic is not a revolutionary leap, but evolutionary.
Thus, as the Ukrainians go back to study older explosives techniques so as to better battle for their future, Russian troops and their clients seem to have little to look forward to but additional and likely significant loss of life.
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