Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Ethics of IEDs

In 1916, Thomas Edward Lawrence joined a force of Arab irregulars (today we might well call them insurgents) in their struggle against the Turkish occupying force of what is now Saudi Arabia. The Arabs wanted to attack the Turkish-held city of Medina, but Lawrence persuaded them to leave Medina alone and focus their attention on the Hejaz railway that supplied the city. A memorable scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia shows Lawrence blowing up a supply train with dynamite. To heighten suspense, the movie portrayed Lawrence in a closeup, waiting with bated breath as he held onto a detonator box plunger until the right moment as the train rolled over the mine. Biographical accounts relate that the reality was less dramatic. Lawrence helped the Arabs make what he called "infernal machines" in the form of bombs hidden in the firewood fuel supply for the locomotives. When the unsuspecting fireman tossed a booby-trapped log into the firebox, it would explode, taking the engine out of service, and perhaps the engineer and fireman as well.

Ninety-one years later, insurgents in a Middle Eastern country are still attacking the transportation systems of occupying forces with terrorist bombs. Only now, we have Iraqis instead of Arabs, humvees instead of steam locomotives, and Americans instead of Turks. Is engineering done in the service of military operations ethical, and if so, where do you draw the line between things that are okay to do and things that no civilized engineer would stoop to?

Ethically speaking, this is well-trodden ground. On one extreme you will find pacifists, who believe all military activity is wrong in principle. On the opposite extreme, there are people like Osama bin Laden, who evidently believe killing civilians in a terrorist attack serves some higher good and therefore must be ethical. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and that includes most engineers. This is another case in which answering specific ethical questions can't be done unless you first say what your worldview is, and what assumptions or postulates you accept. Whether or not we can agree that aggressive wars are right or wrong, I think most people—even pacifists—would agree that preventing harm in war is a good thing. And in the current Iraq conflict, the single most prominent way in which American troops are injured or killed is by "improvised explosive devices" or IEDs.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, IEDs account for more conflict-related fatalities of American troops in Iraq than any other cause. Although the U. S. military terms these devices "improvised," the makers have achieved a high degree of technical competence in the last few years. According to one 2005 report in Military Review by Montgomery McFate, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Intelligence Service operated a bomb-making organization that developed a variety of techniques for hiding explosives in purses, briefcases, belts, and other camouflaged locations. Typically, however, the IED used against mobile forces is buried in a roadway and connected either by wire or wireless link (such as a cell phone) to an insurgent who waits for a U. S. convoy to pass by, and detonates the mine when it will do the most harm. And many of them do.

There is not a lot technically that can be done to defend against these devices. While occasional news reports carry items about RF-based anti-IED technology or other ways to defuse the devices, either these systems have not performed in the field as their inventors hoped, or there are other problems (technical or logistical) involved. Speaking from my experience as an RF engineer, I can say that a powerful enough field to disable a wireless-based system would (a) probably set off the detonator anyway and (b) have a range of only ten or fifteen feet. The obvious disadvantages of operating such a device yourself make it a problem to deploy. More armor on vehicles is another option, but the IED makers have countered this move with shaped charges and other techniques to penetrate armor. And not everybody can drive around in a tank, anyway, even if tanks were shown to be proof against IEDs.

An alternative approach to dealing with the issue that so far hasn't been implemented that well is to go after the network of bomb makers and suppliers. This was the approach favored by McFate in her Military Review article. As the IEDs become more sophisticated, fewer insurgents with the skills necessary to make them will be available. These skilled workers become the Achilles' heel in the network. Taking them out would severely cripple the entire operation.

But that's where we get into other problems. Despite some efforts to learn about the society and culture of Iraq, the majority of U. S. troops in that country have been there for only a short time, have learned only what they need to know to survive, and look forward mightily to their return to the U. S. It's a marked contrast to the way T. E. Lawrence learned Arabic, dressed often as an Arab, and took the side of the Arabs in international negotiations even when the policies he promoted were not always in the best interests of his native country. But it would take someone like Lawrence, or perhaps many Lawrences, even to figure out the social networks that support the IED attacks, much less do anything about them. However, as McFate points out, a similar effort which used software to coordinate information about tribal relationships and connections helped in the capture of Saddam Hussein.

I am no military expert by any means, and as Will Rogers once said, "All I know I read in the newspapers." Anyone with any personal experience in Iraq probably knows a great deal more about the situation than I do, and I will defer to their judgment. All the same, it's depressing, to say the least, to read or hear about yet another IED attack that has killed more American troops. Whatever one's position is on the war in Iraq, or war in general, I think we can agree it would be a good thing to figure out how to prevent these attackers from killing more people, both Iraqis and Americans. But it looks like that won't happen until either the people making and using IEDs decide it's no longer a good idea, or else the people they want to attack aren't there anymore.

Sources: Montgomery McFate's article in the May/June 2005 issue of Military Review can be found at http://usacac.leavenworth.army.mil/CAC/milreview/. The Christian Science Monitor report on IED statistics is at http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0102/p01s03-usmi.html.

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