$300 Billion War vs. $265 Bomb: The Economics of the 9/11 Era's Signature Weapon
September 12, 2011
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room: Wired Magazine
The signature weapon of the 9/11 Era is lethal, easily concealable and maddeningly easy to construct. But the greatest danger from the improvised explosive device (IED) -- what ensures its endurance far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan -- lies in how cheap it is. The average cost of the cheapo IEDs has dropped from $1,125 in 2006 to $265 in 2009. A killing machine, in other words, costs less than a 32-gig iPhone.
(September 8, 2011) -- The signature weapon of the 9/11 Era is lethal, easily concealable and maddeningly easy to construct. But the greatest danger from the improvised explosive device -- what ensures its endurance far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan -- lies in how cheap it is.
The improvised explosive device, or IED, isn't a bomb. It's a category of bombs, and within that category, insurgent MacGyvers construct makeshift bombs from whatever they have at hand. The Iraqi insurgency often relied on looted stockpiles of artillery shells or mines, jury-rigged together and detonated from a cellphone.
In Afghanistan, insurgents can't similarly rely on abandoned weapons depots for their explosives, so they construct bombs using ammonium nitrate fertilizer, detonated by a fuse or using wooden plates that complete a hidden circuit when a soldier inadvertently steps on it. Insurgent allies in the security services of states like Iran or Pakistan add more sophisticated bomb ingredients or aid with logistics.
The common theme: all the ingredients for the bombs are inexpensive enough to remain in mass production, even when the US attacks an insurgency’s revenue stream. And they’re vastly cheaper than the vehicles they destroy, the gear used to find them, and the troops they maim and kill.
Determining just how expensive they are is difficult, owing to all of the different components in the bombs. But according to the Pentagon's bomb squad, the average cost of an IED is just a few hundred bucks, pocket change to a well-funded insurgency. Worse, over time, the average cost of the cheapo IEDs have dropped from $1,125 in 2006 to $265 in 2009. A killing machine, in other words, costs less than a 32-gig iPhone.
Dollar figures for the bombs are hard to come by -- it's not like there’s a Consumer Reports for black-market mines -- but the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, known as JIEDDO, shared some estimates with Danger Room about how much Afghanistan's bombs cost. Those estimates, publicly released for the first time, will have to serve as a proxy for the costs of the weapons worldwide.
The most plentiful types of bomb from 2009 -- the most recent available figures for the myriad types of bombs -- were, unsurprisingly, the cheapest. On average, a "victim-operated" bomb -- one set to explode when its target or a civilian inadvertently sets it off -- cost a mere $265. (That seems remarkably high for bombs that can be as simple as a bunch of fertilizer chemicals, wires and a pressure plate made out of two blocks of wood, but that’s what JIEDDO says.) Those types of bombs accounted for 57.9 percent of homemade bomb incidents in 2009.
The next most plentiful category of bomb, those set off with command wires leading from the device, also cost $265 on average in 2009, accounting for another 23.8 percent of attacks.
As the bombs get more difficult to construct or operate, the costs rise. Bombs activated with a remote detonator like a cellphone cost a mere $345 and accounted for a surprisingly small -- 12.6 percent -- of attacks, perhaps owing to the US' hard-won ability to jam the detonator signal. (One would imagine the major cost component is the cellphone.)
For insurgents to turn a car into a bomb or convince someone to kill himself during a detonation -- or both -- the cost shoots up into the thousands: $10,032 for a suicide bomber; $15,320 for a car bomb; nearly 19 grand to drive a car bomb. All together, those relatively expensive attack methods accounted for fewer than six percent of bomb attacks in 2009.
Most of those bombs have gotten cheaper to produce. In 2006, victim-operated IEDs cost an average of $1,125. Command-wire bombs were $1,266. Remote detonation bombs? The same. And as the costs dropped, victim-operated and command-wire detonated bombs skyrocketed. Back in 2006, they accounted for merely 21.3 percent and a piddling 1.9 percent of all bomb attacks, respectively.
But the sophisticated bombs have gotten more expensive. Car bombs cost $1,675 on average in 2006 -- which seems absurdly low, given the cost of one involves acquiring and then tricking out a car. And the going rate on suicide bombers appears to have risen, from $5,966 in 2006 to nearly double that in 2009. Accordingly, both accounted for over 16 percent of IED attacks in '06. And JIEDDO says it has preliminary reporting indicating that suicide bombers cost $30,000 as of January.
It's also worth mentioning that the number of IEDs in Afghanistan has mushroomed: from 1,952 in 2006 to 5,616 in 2009. All told, since the Afghanistan war began, homemade bombs have killed 719 US troops and wounded 7,448.
JIEDDO provided a lot of caveats to accompany its stats. "Data on IED costs and component prices are extremely rare and is difficult to come by," explains spokeswoman Irene Smith. "There are inconsistencies in collection, definitions, and reporting. Single source, uncorroborated reporting is common. There is no readily available open source data on black market prices or supplies of components or initiators." JIEDDO didn’t have available cost estimates for IEDs in Iraq.
But homemade bombs have proliferated far, far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. JIEDDO's 2010 recent annual report records an average of 260 IED attacks every month (.PDF) outside of the warzones in 2010. So far in 2011, there are upwards of 550 IED attacks beyond Iraq and Afghanistan every month. On Tuesday, Nigerian officials discovered a homemade bomb factory near Abuja; on Wednesday, a bomb stuffed into a briefcase killed 11 people and wounded 79 more in New Dehli.
And if the most common types of homemade bombs cost a couple hundred bucks to produce, the US' measures to stop them -- robots, optics, flying sensors -- are orders of magnitude more expensive. Explosive ordnance detection teams in Afghanistan use a small robot called a "Devil Pup" to locate IEDs. JIEDDO has paid $35 million for the 300 mini-robots -- a little over $116,000 per 'bot, which can buy about 440 victim-operated bombs.
In late July, JIEDDO announced it would provide another $12 million worth of sensors and jammers to detect and stop IEDs. It's all part of a counter-IED effort that's cost at least $19 billion since 2004, even as IEDs have proliferated globally.
JIEDDO also contends that comparing the cost of a particular sensor or jammer to the cost of an IED is an inexact science, since some equipment is used for training and never sent to a frontline unit. And there are lots of variables involved in determining how much a typical IED attack costs the US: do you count a soldier's life by how much the Defense Department pays him?
That may be true -- even if it seems self-serving for JIEDDO to make the point. But it also underscores that the improvised explosive device is a weapon of mass economic destruction, and its proliferation won’t stop until either its costs rise or the costs of counter-bomb methods drop substantially.
So far, it's not going so well. Efforts to stop the importation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer from Pakistan into Afghanistan, for instance, have stalled. A truck driver named Ali Jan recently told the Associated Press it's worth it to him to haul the fertilizer across the border. His take? $20.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.