Since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan morphed into a lengthy battle of attrition with insurgents, the majority of U.S. and Coalition casualties have come from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These have come in every type, shape and size from very simple fertilizer bombs in plastic jugs to sophisticated explosively-formed projectiles provided by Iran.
In response to the IED threat, the Department of Defense went on an unprecedented campaign to improve the protection of our forces. One way was by creating a special institution, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, to figure out all the ways to combat these infernal devices. Another was by proliferating unmanned aerial vehicles like the Scan Eagle and Shadow to provide overwatch of U.S. convoys. But the principle way the Pentagon has come up with for enhancing survivability is by providing the troops with specially-designed, heavily armored vehicles. These include the two most important and common classes of vehicles, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP), which comes in a number of variants, and its newer MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV). In addition, the military has uparmored the venerable Humvee and its medium truck fleets to add to their survivability. There is a plan to provide additional protection to the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle, including a V-shaped plate on the bottom to deflected explosions from underneath. If it isn’t armored it does not move outside the safety of a U.S. base.
There is no question that casualties in Iraq declined with the introduction of MRAPs and uparmored vehicles. Although U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are rising, this is due, in part, simply to the rapid increase in the number of troops deployed in that country. But it is also a function of the Taliban learning new ways of attacking U.S. forces.
One way that Afghan insurgents can seek to defeat new U.S. forces is by increasing the size of their IEDs or how they are deployed. Of course if the IED is large enough it could destroy even a 70 ton M-1 Abrams tank. But this would require a very large IED, one that would be difficult to deploy certainly in any large numbers and much easier to detect. However, the current generation of vehicles may be vulnerable to relatively small increases in the size of terrorist devices.
Every successful MRAP and M-ATV design has to meet a government-specified level of protection and to pass government-conducted blast testing. But these tests may be inadequate. The United Kingdom, for example, has a much more stringent testing methodology that reflects a view of blast phenomenology different from that applied by the U.S. testing body. Under the U.K. methodology an IED of a given size could have much more lethal impact on a vehicle. In effect, if the British approach is right, some types of armored vehicles the U.S. is deploying currently to Afghanistan could have failed their blast tests. This is even before anyone entertains the possibility that the Afghan insurgents might increase the size of the average IED.
Our adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that they are learning organizations that study their adversaries, looking for weaknesses. The Pentagon should not give them the gift of inadequate blast testing of vehicles specifically designed and built to protect our troops from IEDs.
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