The Pros and Cons of IED Electronic Countermeasures

3 MINS READDec 24, 2004 | 01:00 GMT
The most readily available equipment designed to counter wireless command detonated IEDs works by emitting a strong electrical signal that is designed to either cause the device to prematurely activate, or

STRATFOR has received information that an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded recently near a convoy carrying officials of a Western government in Iraq. The officials escaped harm because of the quick reaction of their personal security detachment and the protection afforded them by their armored vehicles. Nevertheless, had it been possible to employ electronic countermeasures in this case, the officials might have sidestepped this sort of danger.

The most readily available equipment designed to counter wireless command detonated IEDs works by emitting a strong electrical signal that is designed to either cause the device to prematurely activate, or "jam" the spectrum of signals that might be used to detonate such a device. Whether the IED explodes prematurely or its signal is jammed by such equipment depends on the design of the IED.

In the latter function, the jamming signal is designed to be stronger than the bombmaker's transmitter signal and to thereby block the bomber's ability to communicate with his device. The output range and power of the frequency varies depending on the model, but a vehicle and/or small convoy would be fairly well protected by any single unit. To be most effective, the jammers are mounted on a vehicle within a convoy or are permanently affixed on a military base or a compound that is frequently targeted for an IED attack. As testament to their effectiveness, an electronic jammer likely saved the life of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf during a December 2003 assassination attempt.

If the countermeasure device works as designed, certain explosive devices will detonate before a command detonation signal is given. However, security teams employing these devices have no way of knowing precisely where an IED is located, and therefore take the risk of exploding it in an area that could cause casualties. This technology cannot prematurely detonate a cell phone-triggered IED because only the particular telephone number can set off the explosives, but it can cause the device to be non-functional while in proximity to the countermeasures device.

Many jammers can block all cell phone frequencies, but the downside to employing this technology is that it renders all cell phones in the vicinity useless — making it extremely difficult for security teams to communicate with one another and/or call in re-enforcements via cell phone. Fortunately, most jammers can be programmed so that they will not block the radio frequencies used by convoy security teams. However, the main drawback to this type of technology is that jammers can only counter remotely detonated IEDs. A "hardwired" IED is immune from the effects of an electronic jammer because it has no signal to jam. In Iraq, insurgents have used both hardwired and remotely detonated IEDs — and, of course, suicide bombs — in their daily attacks against U.S. and Iraqi personnel. In order to counter a hardwired explosive, more traditional methods must be employed, including older methods, such as reconnaissance and ordnance-disposal teams. In Iraq, four basic types of wireless remotely detonated IED's have been used: cell phones, pagers, two-way radios and radio-controlled (RC) receivers, such as garage door openers and toys. Some sophisticated RC systems need a code to detonate, although simple ones can be set of prematurely by broadcasting their frequency. The U.S. military has purchased IED countermeasure devices to equip vehicles in Iraq at a cost of around $50,000 per unit. Less powerful, and therefore less expensive, units are available for civilian purchase as well. Electronic countermeasures are not foolproof, but they can be a valuable addition to the toolkit of any security team — forcing attackers to shift to hardwired devices or to attack softer targets.

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