The evolution of modern warfare has been punctuated by the emergence of unconventional threats, reshaping the dynamics of conflict and forcing military strategists to continuously adapt. Among these threats, the rise of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) stands as a paradigm-shifting development, from their humble origins to their widespread use by insurgent groups and non-state actors. It has redefined warfare tactics, challenged conventional strategies, and underscored the importance of adaptive responses. This article delves into the history, origins, tactics, and consequences of IEDs, exploring why they have emerged as a prominent and potent force in modern warfare.

The Origins and Evolution of IEDs

The concept of improvised explosive devices is not new, dating back to early forms of guerilla warfare and sabotage. However, the transformation of IEDs into powerful and deadly weapons of war began to take shape in the latter half of the 20th century. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) marked an early use of IEDs, with Vietnamese guerrilla forces employing rudimentary explosive devices to target American military convoys and installations.

The prominence of IEDs in modern warfare further gained traction during the uprising of various armed Islamist rebel groups in the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989). Afghan Mujahideen resistance fighters, backed by Western powers, effectively utilized IEDs as a tactic against the technologically superior Soviet forces. These early examples of IED usage showcased the advantages of asymmetrical warfare, where smaller, less equipped forces could effectively counter larger adversaries through innovation and ambush tactics.

A US Cougar armored vehicle hit by an EID, 2007. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Rise of Insurgency and Non-State Actors

The 21st century witnessed the ascendancy of insurgency groups and non-state actors as dominant players in global conflict. This shift coincided with a surge in IED usage, fueled by factors such as ease of production, accessibility to materials, and the ability to strike at the heart of conventional military and civilian infrastructure. The proliferation of IEDs can be attributed to a range of actors, from the Afghan Taliban to Iraqi insurgents and extremist groups in various conflict zones.

The Iraq War (2003-2011) stands out as a turning point in the history of IEDs. Insurgent forces, including elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, employed IEDs as a primary tactic against the American and coalition forces. This period saw IEDs evolve from rudimentary devices to more sophisticated and lethal weapons. Innovations included using shaped charges to penetrate armored vehicles and deploying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) for maximum impact.

Tactics and Impact

The strategic use of IEDs by insurgent groups has profoundly impacted modern warfare. These devices have exploited vulnerabilities in conventional military strategies, rendering armored vehicles and technology less effective. IEDs are often concealed within civilian populations, making them challenging to detect and neutralize. Asymmetric tactics have forced military forces to adapt, placing greater emphasis on intelligence, counter-IED technologies, and community engagement to identify and counter these threats.

The Human and Psychological Toll

Beyond the physical destruction, IEDs have inflicted a significant human and psychological toll. Military personnel and civilians alike navigate an environment where the threat of hidden explosives lurks around every corner. The psychological impact on troops is compounded by the uncertainty of distinguishing friend from foe, and the tragic loss of life among civilian populations has fueled resentment against occupying forces.

The video below shows ground troops hit by IED during a patrol in Afghanistan circa the mid-to-late 2000s. Viewers’ discretion is advised.