The Things That Get You
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSUThere are plenty of nasty ways to meet with death or injury in Iraq. Examples of some of the cleverest devices targeting American troops are mounted on large sheets of plywood outside a dining hall at FOB Kalsu, about 25 miles south of Baghdad. It's a sobering display of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the enemy: antipersonnel mines hidden in household items, pressure-sensitive explosives fashioned from slats of wood and wire, garage door openers that trigger artillery shells to rip open tanks.
The letters IED, for improvised explosive device, have become forever associated with the war in Iraq. These weapons are the greatest day-to-day threat to U.S. forces. The military reported that at least 60 U.S. troops have been killed in IED attacks so far this year (the military doesn't report the cause of death in all instances). IEDs were responsible for more than half of American hostile-fire deaths in the past 12 months.
The military has struggled to develop practices and gear to counter the IED threat, with an array of devices designed to trigger the bombs prematurely or render them harmless. It's punch and counterpunch, as each new design breeds a new defense, and vice versa.
The display at FOB Kalsu, intended to help troops recognize common IEDs, is a poignant reminder of the dangers that soldiers routinely face in or out of their vehicles. The variety known as explosively formed penetratorswhich American officials assert are coming from Iranare particularly dangerous because of their ability to penetrate even armored vehicles. An EFP consists of a short tube that acts as a barrel for a machine-milled concave copper plate. When the explosive charge detonates, the force of the explosion creates a hot copper projectile that shoots from the barrel at hypervelocity and through nearly anything in its path.
"Getting clever." It's hard to fully appreciate the force of this small weapon, even seeing how it can punch a hole through a vehicle's armor. One EFP attack on an American light armored vehicle a few weeks ago sent a copper slug a distance of more than 70 yards, through a concrete wall, then through the rear of a car, tearing through the trunk and the front and back seats, and finally settling in the engine block. In this case, the slug missed its intended target, and no one was injured.
Increasingly sophisticated EFP attacks involve four or more such explosives timed to explode simultaneously or in sequence against a single target. "They are getting clever about aiming EFPs at the engine and troop compartments," says an American commander who witnessed an EFP attack.
But the EFPs against patrols and convoys are only the latest weapons of choice for targeting U.S. troops. Insurgents still use traditional military weapons like mortars as well. Either hand-held or mounted on the back of a pickup truck, mortars can fire an explosive shell a distance of a mile or so, delivering a powerful, if often inaccurate, punch.
The mortar alarms that sound in Camp Kalsu are sometimes ignored, as soldiers have become accustomed to the attacks. Playing dominoes in a large tent, a group of soldiers barely glance up as a mortar alarm begins to sound. The sharp whump of a nearby mortar hit sends them scrambling outside their tent into reinforced concrete shelters. "The worst is when you get four or five alarms and attacks in one night," says a sergeant, leaning on his rifle and peering out of the bunker. "It's hard to sleep through all of that, and you wind up running into the shelter wearing only your boxers."