Small Wars Journal

Improvised Explosive Devices, a Near Perfect Asymmetric Weapon System of Necessity Rather than a Weapon of Choice

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 12:57am

Improvised Explosive Devices, a Near Perfect Asymmetric Weapon System of Necessity Rather than a Weapon of Choice

Paul Amoroso and Michael Solis


The articulation of Counter-IED technical methodology has been reduced to unclear and obscure phrases and concepts that undermine the overall discussion. Specifically, efforts to counter and prevent IED use require precise language; otherwise, the inherent complexity of the problem and associated solutions will be reduced to oversimplified terms and concepts that impair clarity and obscure clear understanding of the problem. The lack of understanding will adversely affect the discussion and the generation of sound and viable solutions. Abstract terms, phrases, and undying allegiances to previously used and often unrealistic solutions undermine our ability to think clearly about the viability of suggested solutions. The reckless regurgitation of words and phrases without thoughtful, clear evaluation perpetuates myths, imprecision, and ignorance. Marc Tranchemontagne broached this subject in his article The Enduring IED Problem, Why We Need Doctrine. He argues that the term weapon of choice is an uninspired kluge whose meaning is too ambiguous to help us understand the IED problem, and that the expression ought to be retired, especially in policy, doctrine, and other thoughtful writing.[i] Authors Paul Amoroso and Michael Solis seek to dispel this commonly used expression embedded in nearly every brief, paper, or discussion related to the use of IEDs, and that the IED is the weapon of choice among aggressors. They argue, instead, that the IED is a “near perfect asymmetric weapon system of necessity.For clarity, the terms terrorist, insurgent, and extremist are often used interchangeably depending on the source of information or context from which the information comes. The term IED aggressor[ii] pacifies the sensitive political context and encompasses all perpetrators of IED employment.


The premise of the argument presented in this article is based on fundamentals of irregular warfare and asymmetric threats; that is, a conflict characterized by an imbalance in hard power, or related capabilities between two competing entities: one entity enjoys capability superiority while the other must adapt its tactics by unconventional and indirect approaches to avoid a direct confrontation. Specifically, extremist organizational and operational approaches are directly related to the strength of the host nation government.[iii] Thus, the weaker opponent must react or adapt proportionately, or as dictated by the stronger opponent. The IED is a near perfect weapon system for balancing this power disparity. Asymmetric tactics undermine the opposition’s strengths and exploit weaknesses whilst maximizing operational impact and strategic consequences by many means, inter alia:

  • Restricting freedom of activity;
  • Disempowering security forces and those who govern in their ability to provide security and support stability - most notably protecting the civilian population;
  • Disproportionately costing millions of dollars in efforts to prevent and counter their use compared to the cost of construction and employment;
  • Influencing target audiences of the aggressor with the messages they wish to communicate in support of their agendas.

The efforts invested in preventing and countering IED use have enduring strategic consequences on the ability of security forces to operate and those governing to project influence. For example, extreme force protection measures often employed degrade operational capabilities and reduce interaction with the local populace-the centrepiece of a counterinsurgency campaign. IED aggressors consider such a costly reactionary result by host nation or developed and developing conventional forces a victory, as they are constantly reacting to the IED-laden environment. The potential threat and the message delivered to target audiences is often more important to IED aggressors than the number of casualties inflicted, materiel damage caused, or economic cost suffered. The insidious nature of the IED and its difficulty to detect and predict has a reverberating effect that penetrates all layers of society. The most impactful effect of IED use, however, is eroding the confidence of the public’s belief that the government can provide basic protective services. As Buffaloe states “Success is measured by the disruptive and psychological effect of an action, not the body count.”[iv] The innocent populace is often caught in the middle of an unconventional or irregular conflict, being pulled in opposite directions by competing forces. This adds another layer of strategic and tactical subtlety, which needs consideration. Because public response contributes significantly to campaign success, the population is the primary focus of Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) and government forces alike in order to gain and retain popular influence.[v] The effects IED use have on a population needs to be appreciated and their impact mitigated if use cannot be prevented. Thus, the populace is the decisive terrain of irregular conflict and prized as essential when determining the prospect of victory or defeat. For the VEO, winning hearts and minds is made easier as the host nation fumbles over ways to mitigate the near perfect asymmetric weapon system by implicitly illustrating its government’s inability to protect its population.

The Asymmetric Character of IEDs

IEDs are a weapon system of modern conflict and are used in both irregular and hybrid warfare, as well as in criminal acts and by “lone wolf” actors. Exploiting a weakness is a fundamental aspect of irregular warfare and the most effective method for circumventing the superiority of a stronger opponent. For example, insurgent groups tend to adopt an irregular approach because they initially lack the resources required to directly confront the incumbent government in traditional warfare.[vi] IEDs are a weapon system that can be used by practitioners of both regular and irregular warfare with equal impact. IEDs are typically designed to kill or degrade an opponent’s ability to achieve their objectives, influence a target audience or discredit those in power. There are many terms used to describe practitioners of irregular warfare[vii], and such terms are often politically motivated indicating the views of those using the term. The expression “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” exemplifies this position. Similarly, those who use them can be considered murderers or martyrs depending on who is describing them. As far back as 1999, it has been recognised that “asymmetric approaches often employ innovative, non-traditional tactics, weapons, or technologies, and can be applied at all levels of warfare-strategic, operational, and tactical and across the spectrum of military operations.”[viii] Although various weapons and tactics have been employed throughout the history of irregular warfare, none has been as effective across all levels of warfare.

As a weapon system of conflict, the IED is asymmetric in nature as it fits the definition of being an asymmetric threat.

“A threat emanating from the potential use of dissimilar/unconventional means or methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses to obtain a disproportionate result.”[ix]

IEDs are asymmetric in nature in that they are not conventional weapon systems and are employed as an aggressor lacks access to traditional conventional weapon systems. IEDs are typically used by an aggressor to circumvent or negate an opponent’s stronger position and compensate for their inferior hardware, human capital, or lack of popular support. IEDs undermine or deny an opponent’s superior position, typically by employing them in a manner that takes advantage of some weakness in their opponent’s defences. The tactics of IED employment, on the fundamental level, follow the use of sabotage tactics. History is replete with examples of equally effective tactics. The Greek resistance during WWII is one such case, where a smaller weaker group (Greek resistance) adopted sabotage tactics as they lacked resource-laden capabilities required to directly confront their adversaries (German forces). The sabotage committed included exploding retaining walls along roads and bridges, mining the roads and bridges, dropping stand-up nails on large portions of the roads, loosening the lug nuts on wheels and slashing the tires of stationary vehicles as well as sniping at drivers.[x] The aforementioned example of sabotage illustrates tactics that were used out of necessity and not choice. Similar to IED employment, these tactics were indirect, non-confrontational, and targeted vulnerable points with devastating impacts.

IED tactics and their countermeasures illustrate the Darwinian nature of their employment, since an aggressor must adapt their use of IEDs to circumvent an opponent’s evolving capabilities to keep them off balance, and forever reacting. An IED aggressor survives by continually shifting tactics to exploit their opponent’s vulnerable points before their opponent can react. The creative latitude involved in IED construction, as well as employment, makes the weapon system highly adaptable and evolving. Commensurately, the ability to adapt to IED employment and incorporate countermeasures is always late in coming; thus, making the IED a near perfect weapon system.

Johnson[xi] predicts that asymmetric warfare through Darwinian evolution results in stronger sides suffering a disadvantage across all three conditions of variation, selection and replication of evolution. This argument may be applied to show the advantage that IED use has from an evolutionary perspective for weaker sides against stronger sides:

1. Variation- IED aggressors can often be composed of a larger diversity of actors compared to those they oppose. IED aggressors can have a broad diversity in backgrounds, competencies, experiences, capabilities and perspectives. Such a larger trait-pool can potentially have a higher rate of “mutation” which supports a culture of rapid innovation and adaptation.

2. Selection- The stronger sides can influence the operating environment of a weaker side to a much greater extent than vice versa. For weaker sides to survive in such hostile environments they are forced to adapt and mutate with little freedom in choice. This is particularly evident with the introduction of IED countermeasures and IED-Risk Management procedures, which will naturally select those IED tactics for continued use, which remain effective against such countermeasures and procedures. Alternatively, they will force an evolution in the IED tactics to circumvent such countermeasures and procedures.

3. Replication- IED aggressor organisations are typically clandestine in their existence or, at the very least, restricted to their freedom of open activity to a defined geographic region as the stronger side hunts and prosecutes them. Smaller in size and out of necessity to survive, their internal lines of communication are typically shorter, less complex and more effective to learning lessons and sharpening tactics from shared experience compared to the stronger side. Such a posture and disposition within IED aggressor organisations supports the efficient and effective replication of improved capabilities and competencies across all its elements in comparison to stronger sides. Stronger sides can be bureaucratically cumbersome and inefficient at learning lessons and replicating the necessary capabilities and competencies across all of its elements. This shortfall can quickly be detected within IED aggressor organisations who can easily identify effective and efficient IED types and associated tactics to share internally and in a timely manner to all its elements, thus supporting replication. In comparison, the stronger side can struggle to understand the technical complexity and tactical sophistication of the IED threat. This can consequently lead to the massive investment in human, financial, time and material resources in the countermeasures and IED-Risk Mitigation procedures implemented. These inadequate responses are further compounded when there is a shortfall to commensurately replicate the required institutional capabilities and competencies to all elements that require these countermeasures and procedures in a timely manner.

Through the perspective of Darwinian evolution, it is clear how an IED aggressor who is resource constrained has a natural and externally induced drive for survival, is forced to be creative and adaptive. IED aggressors are mostly smaller and less encumbered by bureaucratic processes when forced to adapt and evolve unlike stronger opponents who are bureaucratically constrained.

Why IEDs May be Considered the Weapon of Choice

IEDs pose a threat through their use, or threatened use against a specific target. Their versatility as an effective weapon system is based on the myriad types that can be developed in terms of their technical complexity, sophistication, and the vast number of ways that they can be employed. In terms of their technical sophistication, IEDs are only limited by imagination and creativity of those who employ them and the availability of components and material. IEDs generally only require the key components of a Power Source, Initiator, Explosive Main Charge and Switch(es) with the option of a container, and possibly the inclusion of enhancements such as directional effects, added fragmentation, incendiary and Chemical/Biological/Radiological effects. This is well summed up by Muhl: “the inventiveness and creativity of those who would do the population of the world harm is seemingly limitless.[xii]

While an in-depth exposition of the versatility of IEDs as a weapon system is beyond the scope of this paper, one illustrative example is the IED that was used as a tool of assassination against the Afghan Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, on the eve of Sept 11th in 2001. In this particular case, two individuals posing as journalists utilizing the cover story of an interview stealthily carried out the assassination using an IED hidden within a camera system. The success of the operation was enabled by the employment of an IED, whereas a conventional attack via direct confrontation would have failed. In this case, the IED was not only the perfect weapon system to employ but it was used out of necessity as the best option to carry out an otherwise impossible mission. Many other examples of attacks using different IED types of varying technical complexity and various levels of tactical sophistication against diverse targets have been employed and have achieved a myriad of tactical effects. Added to the multiple factors that influence the tactical outcomes of IEDs is the variation in their utility that an aggressor can have, depending on their intent. The tactical effectiveness of IEDs often results in significant operational impacts and, ultimately over time, to strategic consequences.

When one considers their versatility and the ease of access to many of the components that can be utilised in their manufacture, it is easy to conclude that they are a convenient weapon system for asymmetric actors to employ. This simple analysis can then lead one to argue that IEDs are the “weapon of choice” for such asymmetric actors. This conclusion is predicated on the notion that such aggressors have other means, resources, or weapon systems available to them that could produce parallel tactical effects, operational impacts and strategic consequences and they possess the capability, strength and freedom to employ alternative weapon systems. The constraints of the asymmetric actors are often overlooked by the better-equipped force, especially when the better-equipped force has maximum latitude to employ virtually unlimited resources. The resources constrained asymmetric actors simply lack choices when confronting the better-equipped force and must act out of necessity.

The expression IEDs are the weapon of choice for those who use them bears scrutiny. The weapon of choice construction has two implications: first, that the user has a choice of weapons and that among those choices the IED is preferred, and second, that the user can choose to use or not use IEDs.[xiii]

The first implication is argued to be untrue as IEDs are typically used by aggressors in violent conflict for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Lack of access to conventional weaponry or warfighting materiel;
  • Requirement for covert deployment for attack, wishing to avoid a conventional confrontation;
  • Desire to attack without being attributable to the attack – avoid attribution;
  • Second, if an aggressor can choose not to use IEDs it makes sense that, in response to countermeasures employed against their use, alternative weapon systems would be introduced and used. This argument is predicated on the efficacy of countermeasures. What is known from many lessons learned on IED use is that aggressors do not choose to employ alternative weapon systems; instead, countermeasures are circumvented by developing and adapting the technical complexity or tactical sophistication of the IEDs employed. Additionally, the IED maker’s innovative designs typically outpace such countermeasures. Most of the costly countermeasures are circumvented easily and in a short period of time, at no minimal cost to the IED aggressors.

Moreover, we have seen IEDs combined with conventional weapon systems e.g. small arms and light weapon (SALW) systems, in complex attacks. In this case, the IED enabled or enhanced a conventional weapon system attack, which, under other circumstances, would have been rendered innocuous due to enhanced force protection measures. IEDs are frequently used to breach perimeter defences and gain access to secure locations where “shooters” can enter the interior to inflict as much damage as possible and, in many cases, detonate person born IEDs rather than surrender. Alternatively, IEDs can be used along with SALW systems to assault mobile targets in ambush attacks. IEDs in such complex attacks are typically used to stop and hold the target within a killing zone with SALW used to inflict maximum-targeted destruction.

An alternative perspective of this argument is that IEDs are “highly effective weapon systems of necessity” that aggressors are forced to utilise in order to maximize economy of force. IED aggressors usually have no choice in the weapon system(s) they can utilise due to lack of access to conventional weaponry and/or the need for covert deployment for an attack to avoid a conventional confrontation. In certain cases, IEDs may be utilised in an attack to preclude attribution. It is for these reasons aggressors who employ IEDs do not do so out of choice, but rather out of necessity.

In addition to being highly effective tactically, IED employment also has the benefit of attracting substantial publicity for those who employ them. Such publicity generated by IED attacks through media coverage and political reaction reinforces its disruptive and psychological effect as a weapon system. IEDs create a culture of fear within the security forces they target, induce frustration amongst elected officials, and instil a lack of trust – including withdrawal of support from the local populace toward those who are supposed to provide for their safety, security and protection. The insidious nature of the IED weapon system can undermine the government’s efficacy and undermine socioeconomic development and prosperity. There is no other weapon system in the aggressor’s arsenal that has such multifarious potency.

IEDs – the “Near Perfect” Asymmetric Weapon System

As stated previously, by balancing asymmetric disparity through their tactical, operational, and strategic impact, IEDs may be considered the near perfect irregular warfare weapon system. Contributing factors are based on:

  • Their tactical effectiveness, especially when considering the cost to impact ratio; specifically; the train and equip reaction often employed to counter them reactively;
  • Low cost in comparison to their potential target effects, conventional weapon system alternatives, and the research and development efforts needed to prevent and counter their use; 
  • Relative ease of access to many IED components, most purchased “off the shelf” or configured as part of existing  debris and infrastructure at an attack location
  • Ease of access to the know-how of construction and employment through the internet, sharing lessons learned within and between VEO;
  • Use of the internet to inspire other would-be aggressors, and generate publicity for the cause they are used to promote, such as advertising their capabilities as a projection of strength and inducement of fear in a target audience e.g. publicising willing and trained suicide bombers ;
  • Psychological impact and consequences they can have on target audiences the aggressors are attempting to influence;
  • Their versatility and unconventional employment methodology, which is almost limitless;
  • Concealability.

These factors combine to make IEDs a weapon system that can dramatically achieve tactical effects, operational impacts and strategic consequences.

However, the term “near perfect” refers to certain disadvantages regarding the use of IEDs reinforcing the thesis that IED aggressors use them due to necessity rather than choice.

The disadvantages of IED use include:

Attributable nature. Individual IED aggressors have to remain anonymous or security forces will be able to interdict, capture or arrest them. Although an IED aggressor organisation to which they belong may claim responsibility for the use of IEDs, the use of IEDs by individual aggressors provides security forces with an opportunity to identify them, both during manufacture, emplacement and employment through the exploitation and tracing of components. The attributable nature enables tactical prosecution of IED aggressors through targeting and direct action.

Unreliability. IED aggressors make use of components intended for a different purpose and generally tend not to have the resources for thorough research, testing or evaluating effects. IEDs are usually assembled in improvised workshops without formal quality control or supervision; however, exceptions to this have been noted as some organizations have employed production assemblies. These factors can combine to make IEDs unreliable and risky to the builder, transporter and emplacer.

Complexity. It is easy to underestimate the technical complexity of even simple IEDs to untrained aggressors, especially if every attack is different.  An attack using an IED is more complex than an attack using many other weapon system types due to the requirements to manufacture the appropriate type of IED for an intended attack, the level of planning required, and the tactical employment considerations needed to ensure a successful IED attack. An indiscriminate attack risks negative repercussions due to civilian casualties.

Why Considering IEDs as a Necessity Rather than a Choice is Important

The strategic importance of this argument is relevant when formulating responses to the use of IEDs; specifically, the approaches adapted when attempting to prevent and counter the weapon system. The IED is often addressed in isolation without the multitude of complex and inter-related factors that contribute to their use and impact. These factors are often largely ignored whilst efforts to counter their use are typically immediate, reactionary and only executed at the tactical level.

Attempting to tactically defeat the use of IEDs, after emplacement, is a short-sighted approach when a more comprehensive approach that simultaneously seeks to prevent and counter their use at the operational, strategic, and political level ensures economy of effort. In developing such comprehensive approaches to addressing the use of IEDs planners should consider how their use is one of a near perfect asymmetric weapon system of necessity, and how these characteristics may be used against IED aggressors.  

The recognition of IEDs as an asymmetric weapon system used out of necessity and not of choice will provide the military planner or policy maker greater clarity and perspective when resourcing support for a comprehensive approach that appropriately addresses the myriad factors that facilitate their use, across the various levels of planning.

Finally, it logically follows that if the acceptance of the IED as a near perfect asymmetric weapon system of necessity then the opportunities to prevent and counter IED use require a counter asymmetric approach. Such a counter asymmetric approach needs to employ unconventional means and methods, which are varied, quickly adaptable to respond to IED threat evolution, reproducible in a timely manner and across the security forces and other entities who need to employ them. This approach needs to undermine IED aggressor strengths by continually keeping them off balance with the IED eventually being considered an ineffective weapon system and no longer appealing to individuals or organizations. 


Aggressors who employ IEDs may be seen as violent actors who are forced to utilise an effective asymmetric weapon system as a means to influence a target audience through their use and threatened use e.g. to influence a target population into seeing the presiding officials and security forces as weak and unable to protect them.  The effects of IEDs can be amplified by the media and, in particular, the internet, which allows anyone with the means to post material online to communicate their actions and publicise their message. IED attacks have a spectacular nature and inherently attract inordinate political and public attention. Unfortunately, this attention serves IED aggressors well, creates a macabre fascination with their destructive results, and thereby fuels the attackers’ appetite for success.

Certain aggressors are forced to employ IEDs when they choose the path of violent extremism to progress their agendas due to their advantages as asymmetric weapon systems primarily because alternative weapon systems are not available or do not provide the same capabilities. IEDs also have their limitations and disadvantages, which supports the thesis that they are weapon system of choice rather than necessity. As asymmetric actors seek to avoid their adversary strengths and exploit their weaknesses, security forces involved in preventing and countering the use of IEDs need to avoid the strengths of IEDs and exploit their weaknesses and acknowledge that aggressors who employ them are forced to do so. Security forces should consider how to exploit, to their advantage, the attributable nature, unreliability and complexity of IED employment by those who are forced to use them.

The phrase “IED as a weapon of choice” should be avoided. The term ought to be retired, especially in policy, doctrine, and other thoughtful writings.[xiv] Inaccurate phrases and terms that reduce a complex problem to a meaningless cliché can impede problem solving and undermine critical thinking. A key concept to any effective and efficient approach to problem solving is an accurate, clear and concise understanding of the problem so that the best use of limited resources can be achieved. The accurate, clear and concise articulation of the use of IEDs is essential to inform our understanding of this problem and the associated challenges it presents. Describing IEDs as a weapon system of choice does not support this, while describing them as a “near perfect asymmetric weapon system of necessity” does.

End Notes

1. Tranchemontagne, M. (2016). The Enduring IED Problem Why We Need Doctrine. JFQ 80, 1st Quarter 2016. P. 154. 

2. Ibid., 154.

4. Joint Publication 3-14 Counterinsurgency. 25 April 2018. P. xii.

5. Buffaloe, D. (2006). Defining Asymmetric Warfare. The Land Warfare Papers, No. 58 September 2006.

6. COIN Curriculum Working Group. Counterinsurgency A Generic Reference Curriculum. NATO. P. 56.

7. Joint Publication 3-14 Counterinsurgency. 25 April 2018. P. xi.

8. While the following is not an exhaustive list it illustrates the lack of clarity on defining those who may employ IEDs, with some of the terms used to describe practitioners of irregular warfare including; terrorists, extremists, insurgents, aggressors, guerrillas, revolutionaries, fundamentalists, radicals, rebels, freedom fighters, thugs, militias, subversives, anarchists, saboteurs, militias, and paramilitaries.

9. Joint Strategic Review, 1999 (Washington, D.C.: The Joint Staff, 1999), p.2.

10. NATO Standard AJP-3.2 Allied Joint Doctrine for Land Operations, March 2016.

11. Douthit, H. (1988). The Use and Effectiveness of Sabotage as a Means of Unconventional Warfare-An Historical Perspective From World War I through Viet Nam. Department of the Air Force, Air University. AFIT/GLM/LMSA/87S-20. P. 35.

12. Johnson, D. (2009). Darwinian Selection in Asymmetric Warfare: The Natural Advantage of Insurgents and Terrorists. Washington Academy of Sciences. Fall. P. 89.

13. Muhl, G. (2011). Defeating Improvised Explosive Devices (IED): Asymmetric Threats and Capability Gaps. U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

14. Tranchemontagne, M. (2016). The Enduring IED Problem Why We Need Doctrine. JFQ 80, 1st Quarter 2016. P. 154. 

15. Tranchemontagne, M. (2016). The Enduring IED Problem Why We Need Doctrine. JFQ 80, 1st Quarter 2016. P. 154.

About the Author(s)

Mr. Michael Solis is the C-IED Deputy Branch Chief at U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart Germany. He is a former U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician with tactical, operational, and strategic experience supporting U.S. and NATO missions. His current focus is strategy and policy development and is assisting the African Union with developing a continental framework for managing the complex and ever-evolving IED threat. He was one of the primary authors of the NATO Common C-IED Training Model.

Mr. Paul Amoroso is the IED Threat Mitigation Policy Advisor working in East Africa. He served in the Irish Army as an IED Disposal and CBRNe officer and has extensive tactical, operational, and strategic experience in Peacekeeping Operations in Africa and the Middle East. He currently works in the development of doctrine and policy and was one of the key contributors to the United Nation’s Improvised Explosive Device Disposal Standards and the United Nation’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Military Unit Manual.