Fourth industrial revolution driving the sophistication of IEDs


The fourth industrial revolution (IR) has bought about cyber-physical systems that are changing the landscape of war between state and non-state actors. Smart robotics, autonomous vehicles, materials that are lighter and tougher mean that for the first time non-state adversaries such as ISIS, Boko-Haram and Al-Qaeda can access aerial warfare assets, particularly with the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

IEDs consist of an initiating mechanism, a detonator, an explosive charge and a casing with or without projectiles such as nails or rocks that produce lethal damage. The objects and materials IEDs are made out of vary and include artillery rounds, mortar rounds and aerial bombs, while certain fertilisers and TNT are used as explosives. Variants of IEDs contain radiological, chemical or biological components. Vehicle-borne IEDs aimed at destroying buildings are generally larger and packed with more explosives to deliver a bigger payload. More sophisticated IEDs used to destroy armoured vehicles, such as IEDs with shaped-charge warheads that upon detonation create molten metal that penetrates heavy armour, have proven powerful enough to destroy M1 Abrams tanks.

While there is a wide variety of initiating systems, they fall into two categories: command-initiated and autonomously initiated. Command-initiated IEDs detonate through human interaction; the receiver detonates the explosive when it receives an electronic impulse sent to it via a wired connection or wireless signal. Commonly used initiators are cell phones, pagers, automatic garage-door openers, car alarms and wireless doorbells. Autonomously initiated IEDs detonate without human intervention such as by a trip wire, pressure plates, infrared system or magnetic detonators.

IEDs can be hidden in debris, carcasses and dug into the ground to name a few methods. Static IEDs are used to either take lives or gain territory by making roads and routes inaccessible to military vehicles. Suicide bombers that seek to cause as much damage as possible will enter a large and heavily occupied public space.

IED explosions are the biggest cause of death by explosives for civilians. Between 2010 and 2017 IEDs claimed 135 255 deaths and casualties, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). In April 2019, AOAV recorded 2 326 deaths and injuries by explosive violence with 78% being civilians.

Suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs) generally fall into two categories: covert and up-armoured. Covert refers to unmodified civilian vehicles that can get close to their targets without being detected. They are usually used in areas where the non-state actor has little territory. Up-armoured vehicles are based on military and civilian vehicles and are overhauled with welded metal plates. This type is mostly used where the non-state actor has gained control of a territory.

ISIS pioneered the use of small, commercial drones to bomb Iraqi forces. Being equipped with cameras, drones provide terrorists with real time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Small commercial and hobby drones are an efficient way of carrying a payload to a target because of their availability. They are becoming cheaper, more sophisticated, and capable of carrying larger payloads. The drone allows a terrorist to circumvent traditional security measures by flying over them. The operator can be behind cover and conduct the attack from a position of safety. Advancements have allowed terrorists to drop IEDs with great accuracy. Modern consumer drones are relatively quiet and can be hard to spot, giving an element of surprise and being able to film the attack with on-board cameras generates propaganda on social media.

New technologies are also allowing more opportunities for terrorists. First person view (FPV) with communication infrastructure such as 4G allows for more accuracy and avoidance of obstacles. Multi-rotor technology and collision avoidance technology allows for steadily and easily controlled flight. Global positioning systems (GPS) and default to hover when hands are taken off the controls is now standard with most drones. Battery technology now allows for longer flights with increased range and payload weight. Drone size has become smaller, their speed has increased, their cost has decreased and most legal systems are struggling to catch up as has is being seen with issues of drones entering commercial flight paths. The threat of drone borne IEDs (DBIEDs) unique qualities means   that conventional and older defence systems and strategies may not be the best solution to defeating them.

In the fourth industrial revoluation (4IR), new defence technology to tackle the problem of DBIEDs exists and is emerging. Examples are Battelle’s DroneDefender, which jams the signal between a small drone and its operator. Boeing’s new Maneuver Short-Range Air Defence System is designed to defend against drones, helicopters and small aircraft from short to medium range and Israel Military Industries’ Red Hawk 2 Drone Defender is capable of detecting and countering UAVs up to five km away.

The fourth industrial revolution will continue to bring about new cyber-physical technology that needs to be fully recognised and addressed by militaries as the statistics on IED deaths and casualties continues to grow.