Institutionalizing Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Lessons Learned from Afghanistan

An Overview – Part 1

By Wing Commander (ret.)

By Wg Cdr



, UK


Joint Air Power Competence Centre

 November 2015
Warfare Domains: Land Operations


Background. In January 2014, the JAPCC, together with the Joint Allied Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC), was asked by NATO HQ Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESCD), on behalf of NATO’s Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Task Force, to analyse what C-IED lessons could be identified from Afgha­nistan and consider how these lessons could not only be learned but ‘institutionalized’1. This 2-part article will provide an overview of the issues that were identi­fied in the paper submitted in response to the ESCD’s request for support.

Methodology. The contents of these articles represent the distillation of many hundreds of hours of work. A number of ‘fact finding’ visits were made to ISAF over a period of years and C-IED capability development workshops were supported at a variety of headquarters. Additionally, the JAPCC used engagements with both the C-IED Task Force and the C-IED COE as vehicles to gather information. The primary method of obtaining data was through discussion with specialists across the spectrum of ranks who were either directly involved in or supported the C-IED fight. Military and civilian, national and Alliance perspectives were recorded and both industry and academia were consulted. All information gathered was non-attributable.

Purpose. The purpose of the original work was twofold. Firstly, it sought to expose to appropriate audiences and decision-makers the key findings of JAPCC work in support of NATO C-IED efforts in order to promote debate that would eventually lead to further development of C-IED capability. Secondly, to contribute to the C-IED ‘Lessons’ process so that an ‘Action Plan’ can be developed to ensure that the hard-won lessons from Afghanistan will be taken forward.

Bottom Line Up-Front (BLUF)

C-IED lessons identified must be learned and institutionalized. However, this activity should not be at the expense of being prepared for the next threat(s). At the core of the IED problem is the concept of the ‘IED Network’. It has been demonstrated repeatedly by, amongst others, Intelligence and Law Enforcement communities, that IED networks rarely operate just to facilitate IED attacks but that often a variety of other ‘nefarious’2 activities are being conducted in conjunction with IED facilitation.3 It is likely that the IED networks of today, their subsequent evolutions or their replacements will be at the heart of the next set of challenges. Therefore, institutionalizing a ‘Counter-Nefarious Network’ capability should be the ultimate objective. To do this we need to think in a combined, joint and comprehensive fashion in ­order to build an Alliance network (or network of networks) in order to successfully counter the nefarious networks we are likely to face in the future (including IED networks).

Future Threat Overview

Entire books have been written about future threats4 and the topic of so-called ‘Hybrid Threats’5 is currently popular. In terms of the likelihood of conflict, the question is not whether war will arise, but in what form and where. However, irrespective of the time, complexity and geographic location of the next NATO operation, it is highly likely that an IED threat will ­either be present at the outset or will develop as the operation progresses. The IED is not a new weapon. At the time ISAF was expanding, there was already significant use of IEDs by insurgents in Iraq6 and, of course, there is the much analysed use of IEDs during the so called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Irrespective of where you look, the history of IEDs can be traced back to at least the 1500s, when ships loaded with explosives were used as weapons. Therefore, the IED will undoubtedly remain a weapon of choice for future adversaries. A quick search of the internet will provide an insight into the number of IED incidents taking place in Ukraine. However, we must ensure that we balance the development of ‘pure’ C-IED capability with the development of our ability to deal with whatever our enemies may choose to replace and / or complement IEDs with in the future.

Courting Controversy

Terminology. At the heart of any adversary’s IED cap­ability is his facilitation network and the likely nature of future threats is such that ‘nefarious’ networks will be a factor to some degree. It is suggested, therefore, that it is necessary to develop a NATO ‘Counter-Network’ capability. However, the use of the word ‘Counter’ is proving controversial. Current accepted terminol­ogy is ‘Network Identification Engagement (NIE)’, with a focus on Network Identification, not actions against a network. But what is the good of knowing about something if you can do nothing about it?

First Ten Lessons

1. Transnational Challenge. At the heart of the IED challenge is the network. Importantly, such networks are not constrained by international borders; they are truly transnational. It is accepted that the Alliance is ultimately a political entity and its military activities will be bound by politics, law, conventions and morals. However, on numerous occasions when discussing ­C-IED and specifically ‘Attack the Network (AtN)’, the issue of the ‘political limiting’ of the Joint Operational Area (JOA) arose. If our adversaries as well as their supporters have safe havens from which they can ­operate with impunity, it will be difficult if not impossible to defeat them. Political limits may, in some cases prove detrimental to mission accomplishment and should be carefully weighed by authorities before being imposed.

2. The Joint Approach. The Afghan experience was set in a land-locked country, whereas future oper­ations may be set in the maritime, littoral or riverine environments. Despite this, whilst carrying out research, it became clear that many were already discussing C-IED as a Joint activity. Equally, it is worthy of note the Taliban did use IEDs to target helicopters and experimented with using IEDs to target low-flying fixed-wing aircraft. NATO’s Maritime Component is currently exploring how the IED might be employed in their environment and how it may subsequently be countered. The lesson is clear – C-IED must be a Joint endeavour.

3. The Combined & Comprehensive Approach. Few nations can now operate at anything above ‘small scale’ on their own. Initiatives such as NATO’s ‘Smart Defence’ and ‘Connected Forces Initiative’, together with the European Defence Agency (EDA) ‘Pooling and Sharing’ concept, are a reality in the modern defence environment. Afghanistan demonstrated the huge cost of countering the IED threat. If we in NATO are to continue to maintain a robust C-IED capability, the approach must be coherent with existing NATO initiatives. Furthermore, the future operating environment will involve a plethora of Other Government Departments (OGDs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) operating in the same space as the military. Military deployments will likely be part of a wider attempt at conflict resolution with the full spectrum of Diplomatic, Industrial, Military and Economic (DIME) elements in play. It is likely that these other ­actors will be as concerned as the military about the threat and many already have well-developed strategies for operating in high IED-threat environments. If we have to work alongside these other ‘actors’, then we should develop our C-IED capability in concert with them, including integrated training. Academia brings a particular approach to the solving of complex problems as well as a perspective on history; this ‘alternative’ but equally valid approach can contribute to the C-IED fight. By engaging with industry, the military gains an understanding of what is deliverable in terms of technology and industry gains an understanding of the requirement. In summary, engagement with OGDs, NGOs, academia, and industry is essential to an effective approach to C-IED.

4. Build a Network to Break a Network. What was clear from the outset was that by broad, independent and unbiased engagement regarding C-IED, the JAPCC was able to gather information from multiple sources. It soon became apparent that, whilst there were themes running throughout, there was no single approach to C-IED. Similarly, no one location had what the JAPCC or the location itself considered an ideal solution. Rather, by having described to them mul­tiple approaches, the JAPCC team was able to extract in the vast majority of cases at least one, often more, novel or innovative concepts that provided a location with an edge. By visiting multiple locations, the JAPCC was able to act as a conduit for the sharing of these concepts and in doing so was adding to the overall capability base. This concept of building ‘friendly’ networks in order to defeat threat networks is perhaps one of the major findings. In future conflicts, it will be important that C-IED professionals network throughout their AOR in order to realize these benefits.

5. Skewing of Perspectives. Outside of the C-IED Community, other ‘capability areas’ have raised concerns over the disproportionate amount of attention and resources being invested in C-IED, which may be driven by political imperatives or media pressure. The perception is that an entire ‘industry’ has developed around countering the IED threat and that there are now ‘vested interests’ to perpetuate C-IED as a specialist capability area.7 It is understood and accepted that the Alliance developed the C-IED approach because of the imperative at that time. However, as we strive to ‘institutionalize’ the capability, part of the process should also take the lessons from a single ­capability area and spread them across many where appropriate. Institutionalizing C-IED capability is absolutely essential, but it must not be at the expense of ignoring other threats.8

6. Developing Added Value at the Operational Level. The JAPCC has supported a number of Capabil­ity Development events. It has also supported the development and provision of the C-IED COE’s C-IED Staff Officers’ Awareness Course (SOAC) in an effort to mitigate one commonly observed challenge. The challenge is how to create a Joint Staff ­Officer who can think at the operational level and add value to the C-IED fight. Many staff officers had considerable experience at the tactical level but came straight from the point of delivery of effect into the staff environ­ment. This has historically resulted in a cadre of personnel who struggled to do anything other than approach the challenge at the tactical or sub-tactical level and ultimately, output became focused on ‘Defeat the Device’.

7. Beyond ‘Defeat the Device’. In discussing AtN with those responsible for forensic exploitation of IEDs, three interrelated failures at the tactical level formed a substantial part of the discourse. Firstly, material from devices was either simply not being collected or was being handled in a manner that rendered it forensic­ally useless. The second was a prevalent view that, all too often, the simplest course of action of destroying the IED in situ (‘Blowing in Place’) was the preferred course of action, again limiting the supply of resources to support AtN forensic activity. Finally, often, material that was being moved for further exploitation was not moved at a pace that allowed the force to detain suspects. Exploitation processes have to support the force both in terms of its ability to further degrade nefarious networks but, also support compliance with the Judicial Process and the Rule of Law.

8. Biometrics. Biometrics is an essential tool in the fight against ‘nefarious’ actors that, when used correctly, will at least limit their freedom of movement and at best bring about their prosecution and subsequent removal from circulation.9 The Alliance should continue to pursue the development of a robust strategy for the effective use of Biometrics as a key tool in neutralizing nefarious networks through the identification and subsequent targeting of the members of such networks. JAPCC’s work indicated that there was a general lack of understanding of the use of ‘Biometrics’. This lack of understanding, leading to an unwillingness to embrace ‘Biometrics’, applies equally to any future technology that has proven capability but the fielding of which is viewed as controversial by some nations.

9. Bigger Vehicles Bigger Bombs. The bigger, more heavily armoured our vehicles are, the bigger the IED our adversary will build. Armour will always, eventually, be overmatched. A bigger device does not necessarily become easier to detect, especially if forces are enclosed in large armoured vehicles with little awareness of their surroundings. A balance needs to be struck between protection, adequate situational awareness and, if appropriate, an ability to engage with the civilian population. Caveats that force personnel to operate in armoured vehicles that alienate them from the population and cause damage to property run counter to an effective C-IED strategy. A similar argument applies to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or ‘Body Armour’10 as well as other equipment personnel carry when on foot. Avoiding encumbering personnel with a weight of equipment that causes them to lose focus on their surroundings and miss obvious combat indicators that point to the presence of an IED is a vital part of a sound C-IED strategy.

10. Last But Not Least. It is inevitable that IEDs will continue to cause casualties. Any attempt to ‘insti­tu­tionalize’ a C-IED capability must have realistic aspirations. Underpinning this effort has to be the accep­tance that any military operation is inherently dan­gerous and there will be occasions where our adversary will be successful. This needs to be accepted as part of what we do by senior leadership, politicians and the media.


The author has tried to capture challenges, not necessarily in the manner in which they were initially discussed but in a manner that describes them as something that can be acted upon in order to achieve the stated purpose. It is clear that whilst there are numerous individual challenges, many, if not all, are interlinked and, so any attempt to ‘institutionalize’ the C-IED lessons from Afghanistan will need a truly comprehensive approach. Furthermore, whilst it could be argued that most lessons could be institutionalized as part of the concept of ‘Train the Force’, this is an over-simplistic approach. Many of the solutions to the challenges presented above span multiple lines of development and affect, in many cases, multiple levels of command across the Joint environment. The next instalment of this article will explore further challenges and explore a coherent way forward for the Alliance.

Institutionalisation refers to the process of embedding something (for example a concept, a particular value or mode of behavior) within an organization.
Typically of an action or activity wicked or criminal.
Human Trafficking, Drug Smuggling and Money Laundering are but three, simple examples.
As an example, see JAPCC publication: Present Paradox – Future Challenge, JAPCC 2014.
The journalist Frank G. Hoffman defines a hybrid warfare as ‘Any adversary that simultaneous and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior (sic) in the battlespace to obtain desired political objectives’. Hoffman, Frank G. ‘Perspectives on the Future Security Environment’, Before the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, House Armed Services Committee, US House of Representatives, 13 Feb. 2012.
1,683 IED incidents in Iraq in Oct. 2005. Cordesman, Anthony H. (with assistance from Moller, Sara Bjerg). ‘Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency’ (Working Draft). The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 9 Dec. 2005.
It is not unreasonable to assert that other ‘capability areas’ view C-IED with an element of envy.
The proliferation and availability of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) could be used as one of several examples.
Either in the context of the due process of law or as a military target.
To include helmets, eye protection, etc.
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Wing Commander (ret.)
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Wing Commander (ret.) Jez Parkinson is a RAF Regiment Officer with 33-years’ regular Service; over half in the Multinational environment and in excess of 7-years on operations. He continues to work as a Reservist in the Force Protection Environment and as a civilian on Asset Protection collaborating with the military, industry and academia. He is the author of NATO FP Policy, FP Doctrine for Air Operations and the current Custodian for Joint FP Doctrine. He is responsible for the development and delivery of NATO FP Courses as well as writing several publications and articles on FP.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

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