Detonating an IED in Iraq

IEEE Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports from Iraq, where he is on assignment for an upcoming story about counter-IED technology. This is Zorpette's second visit to Iraq. He traveled there in late 2005 to report about reconstruction efforts in his award-winning feature "Re-engineering Iraq."


I got to blow up an IED yesterday.

It was very satisfying. It smoked afterward.

I went out with a Navy EOD team to do "route clearance" on what the coalition calls Main Supply Route Tampa.

It was my second route clearance. I'd gone out Saturday but it was cut short because fog rolled in and the medevac status went "black," meaning the medevac helicopters couldn't get to us if we needed them.

MSR Tampa is what the coalition calls the main north-south highway through Iraq. We started at COB Speicher, where the team is based, and went about 90 kilometers north and then came back.

There was a briefing in the predawn darkness, eighteen of us standing around in a circle in the light of our huge armored vehicles. The EOD team I was with went out with 16 Army "engineers" (not really engineers) who were in RG-31s and Buffalos, armored and equipped with optics, robot arms, or other systems to help them spot and manipulate IEDs. The briefing covered recent intelligence on insurgents in the area, procedures if we were to be attacked, if medevac were necessary, if we found IEDs. We got our call sign ("trip wire.")

Then a tall African American soldier said a prayer. All the soldiers looked like high school students. They were prancing and talking sh#t like it was a pep rally. By contrast the Navy EOD guys looked like grizzled veterans. Then I realized I was old enough to

be their father.

We got in the trucks and rolled out. The two EOD operators and I were in a Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle (JERRV. Google it.) We listened to loud thrash metal on an iPod plugged into a fairly amazing sound system. No, the $740,000 JERRV doesn't come with a HiFi system; the operators put them in themselves because route clearance takes 9 -- 10 hours, you go about 20 mph, and you would lose your mind without a sound system. After 20 minutes, I would have traded $500 for the opportunity to listen to Mildred Bailey or Frank Sinatra.

I asked the EOD team leader why he became a Navy EOD operator. He said, "I wanted to dive and blow sh#t up." Indeed. Who doesn't?

After about an hour we started skirting the sprawling city of Bayji. To a middle class Westerner, it seems sort of decrepit and depressing, trash strewn in parts, like most of the Iraqi cities I've seen so far.

About 40 minutes after we hit the outskirts of Bayji we held up because the lead vehicle, one of the RG-31s, spotted something suspicious in the road. It turned out to be a big metal box with two bricks in it and some wires attached; apparently a standard dummy IED. Word came back over the radio, and wecontinued to hold up while the engineers searched for other devices. The Navy guys noted that the insurgents often place fake IEDs for several reasons: (a) to videotape how route clearance teams deal with IEDs, in

order to refine their methods of attack; (B) to halt the teams so they can fire a rocket or

rocket-propelled grenade or EFP at one or more vehicles; (c) to distract the teams from a real, better concealed IED nearby.

A while later we heard over the radio that Iraqi Police detained five men in a car shortly after we were there-- they had the standard kit- long-range cordless phones (used to trigger IEDs), assault rifles, and video camera. There was also apparently a sixth man, who escaped, who supposedly had an IED. How the police surmised what he had without catching him I could not pin down.

The fake IED was near the intersection with a route that bypasses Bayji; the coalition calls this route the Hershey Bypass. It's notorious for many large IEDs. (There's a 10-sec. video of a big blast bareley missing a humvee.) When an IED detonates, the Army engineers fill in the blast crater with concrete, because the insurgents used to use the same craters to plant new IEDs. Parts of Hershey bypass are pocked with concretem patches. As we went by various patches, the EOD guys gave me a guided tour of some of the more notorious


We got to the top of our route around mid day. We turned around and came back down and dropped in for lunch on a forward operating base called FOB Summerall. It was not a relaxed place; there are few people stationed there and the surrounding area is still pretty hostile. But the food at the DFAC was good.

We dropped off a coffee machine for the EOD team there. The operator we met there had that "really happy to get company" demeanor. The pathway leading to their tactical operations center was a line of captured brass artillery shells, laid side by side.

We continued south on Tampa. More thrash metal and hip hop. Besides the music blasting in the cabin, we were wearing headphones that let us talk to each other and also to the other vehicles in our group. So sometimes you were hearing three different things: thrash metal, an internal conversation, and an external one. It gave me a headache, but the EOD guys seemed used to it and could somehow process all three noises separately.

There was a bit of a weird dynamic in the JERRV, because the driver/team leader was actually a lower rank than the robot operator, who was a college-educated lieutenant. But the team leader was on his third deployment to Iraq; had been on more than a hundred IED missions, had seen more than a dozen vehicles hit by IEDs, and had himself survived a hit on his vehicle. The officer/robot operator was basically almost as new to all this as I was.

About 20 km north of Speicher we heard on the radio that the lead vehicle of a supply convoy had seem something that looked like a possible IED in the road and had held up the convoy (and all other traffic on the highway).

We went by two donkeys grazing in the median and arrived at the scene around 2:45. Some of the other vehicles in our caravan blocked traffic. Our team leader leaned out the window where a soldier was standing and said, "what's going on?" He said the thing looked like two 120 mm artillery rounds in a burlap bag with wires coming out of it.

We were about 125 meters north of the thing. The robot operator sent the robot out; it has a video camera sensitive to three different spectra. On the screens in the JERRV we saw a burlap bag with two bags of something inside it, and 2 wires running to the west. Each of the bags was too big and heavy for the robot to push. "That's UBE or sand," the operator said.

"We'll find out when we blow it." UBE means unidentified bulk explosive.

He steered the robot back to the JERRV. The team leader tied a big knot in some detonation cord and taped it up with three blocks of C4. He put it in the robot's manipulator and the operator steered the robot back to the IED. Manipulating the controls inside the back of the JERRV, he commanded the robot to put the charge in between the two bags. Then they let me pull the pin on the igniter.

There was a big orange fireball, a thump that felt like a punch in the chest, and then acrid-smelling black smoke. "Yep, that was definitely some sh#t," the team leader said. The initiator kind of sparked and sizzled in my hand, so I threw it down, and it left burn marks on my sweater (souvenirs!).

The black smoke was a hallmark of homemade explosive, the team leader explained. Military explosive usually gives off white smoke when it blows up.

Then he informed me that according to Navy EOD tradition, I owed him a case of beer. He keyed the iPod, and blasted "Play that Funky Music, White Boy," while the two of them played air drums.

It was a big enough blast to damage a Humvee, maybe even kill someone inside, they guessed. We found frag in the road around the blast, which meant that there was also almost certainly an artillery shell in among the bags of UBE, to create shrapnel.

We gathered up the command wires, which were the standard enamel-covered copper wire that the insurgents use all over Iraq; it seemed to me to be the wire used to wind coils in motors and transformers. I think it might be called Litz wire. It's thin and easily concealed but sufficiently conductive to carry the power needed to pop a blasting cap.

The wires from the IED we detonated went off quite obviously to a 1-story building, about 25 meters square, about a kilometer away. The driver and the robot operator got into a slightly tense discussion about what to do. The operator wanted to go kick in the door, but the more experienced team leader (but remember, he's junior in rank to the operator) thought it wasn't a good idea. The engineers we were with weren't really trained for that kind of fight, if it came to that. And we had no interpreter with us, so if we found people in the house we couldn't ask them why there were copper wires leading to their residence. Plus, unspoken, was the fact that I was there, I guess, another encumbrance.

In the end, the team leader's will prevailed. He said to the lieutenant, "Are you disappointed in me? Did you want to go out there and kill somebody?" But the lieutenant agreed in the end that it was a job for a QRF (quick reaction force) team, which is specially trained for that sort of thing.

The team leader mused aloud, I guess for my benefit, "Where do you turn off your aggression level?" He'd been in several situations like this one, except in those cases there was also a combat-trained team, the commander of which was "basing his decision on what you say--whether they destroy a house or knock down a building."

My happiness was short lived. When we got back to the Navy EOD tactical operations center at Speicher, we learned that five soldiers in a Humvee were killed in an EOD blast and coordinated ambush from a mosque in Mosul, north of where we were.

I'm in Kuwait now, on my way out. See y'all soon.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.