On the day of our greatest loss of life in Afghanistan, I was talking to a very senior British Army officer about improvised explosive devices and I asked the question: “In order to reduce the deaths of British soldiers, do you need better equipment?” His answer—and his job is to deal with just this problem—was short and to the point: “You could give me a main battle tank and in the end it would make no difference, because they would just use a larger charge.”
In the evolutionary arms race that is the Afghan counter-insurgency, according to him and both his superiors and subordinates with whom I spoke that day, the single greatest cause of deaths in Afghanistan in the medium and long term is the lack of troops on the ground.
The example he used to illustrate this is as follows. The detonators on IEDs have for some time been similar to the movement sensors used on everyday household burglar alarms. The first in a convoy of vehicles would trigger the sensor and the charge would detonate punching through the armour with the molten copper pressure mechanism which was developed some time ago (and which can pierce the hide of the Challenger II tank given sufficient primer behind it). So an ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) was developed to deal with this that would disrupt the device before the vehicle was within effective range. The counter-measure to the counter-measure was swift in development and deadly in effect: someone simply runs a copper wire out of the device for half a kilometre and sits behind a rock waiting for the convoy of armoured personnel carriers to arrive.
So, what is the counter-measure to that? The only answer is to know where the bomb is before it is detonated. And how does one do that? Well, a short term solution is to divert satellites and then run complicated difference algorithms with supercomputers to spot changes in landscape features. Or, and this is far, far cheaper in the medium and long term, put more troops on the ground. Then you would have the tangible benefit of having more ‘bobbies on the beat’ but – infinitely more importantly – local intelligence would be more forthcoming.
At the moment, when a British patrol encounters resistance it calls in…