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Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq, 2003-09: A Case of Operational Surprise and Institutional Response

Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq, 2003-09: A Case of Operational Surprise and Institutional Response - Cover

Authored by Brigadier Andrew Smith.

April 2011

85 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Surprise is a familiar term in military writings and is enshrined in most nations’ doctrine. Surprises that emerge in tactics, however, can also operate at the strategic and operational levels and are particularly dangerous because they can test the relevance and adaptability of military forces and the "institutional" defense establishments that create, develop, and sustain them. A military establishment that is too slow to recognize and respond to such surprises places its nation’s interests at grave risk. Western nations are contemplating major reductions in defense spending, with consequent limitations on force structure. As the range of enemy capabilities that a force will be able to match, qualitatively and quantitatively, becomes smaller, the potential for operational and strategic surprise will increase. A key conclusion from this analysis is the critical role of strategic leadership in recognizing the scale of surprise and in forcing the necessary institutional response. At a time when budgets will not allow surprise to be addressed by maintaining large and technically diverse forces at high readiness, the ability to recognize and respond adroitly to operational and strategic surprise may be a critical requirement for a modern defense establishment.


The threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that has emerged in confl icts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 is a contemporary example of conventional militaries being confronted with a tactical surprise with operational—if not strategic—implications. Those implications can necessitate “institutional” responses to avoid strategic defeat in what, for many countries, are “wars of discretion.” Operational surprise, as defi ned in this examination, differs from strategic shocks as described by Nathan Freier, and the necessary responses are distinct from the military adaptations considered by John Nagl. The paper contends that the 6-year evolution of the IED experience from 2003 until 2009 constitutes a complete cycle of surprise and response, of which the most signifi cant part is the institutional response. A case study of this experience illustrates how conventional military establishments recognize and respond to such surprises, with a particular focus on the experience, respectively, of the U.S. and Australian defense establishments. This case study reveals that institutional response is triggered by recognition of the surprise, which then cues organizational, equipment, training and doctrine, research and development, industrial, funding/budgetary, and policy actions.

Because the IED problem has mostly been a phenomenon of the land environment, this examination tends to emphasize the responses of armies, but the lessons have more general application. This paper contends that both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) could have responded quicker than they did: contemporary defense establishments, it seems, may not cope well with such surprises. Despite this, the DoD demonstrated impressive agility in its response, especially for such a large organization, while the ADO was curiously slow to make the necessary institutional adaptations. In both cases, the role of senior leadership was key to mobilizing an effective response. In a fi scally constrained future that lacks the certainty of bipolar, state-on-state threats, the ability to recognize and respond quickly to operational and strategic surprise may be the decisive characteristic of national defense establishments.

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