explosive device

Improvised explosive device

An improvised explosive device (IED) is a bomb constructed and deployed in ways other than in conventional military action. They may be partially comprised of conventional military explosives, such as an artillery round, attached to a detonating mechanism.

IEDs may be used in terrorist actions or in unconventional warfare by guerrillas or commando forces in a theater of operations. In the 2003–present Iraq War, IEDs have been used extensively against coalition forces and by the end of 2007 they have been responsible for approximately 40% of coalition deaths in Iraq. They are also used extensively by cadres of the rebel Tamil Tiger (LTTE) organization against military and civilian targets in Sri Lanka.

IEDs are often placed on the curb of roads so as to be detonated when vehicles or pedestrians pass by, and so are sometimes also known as roadside bombs.

The term IED used to describe such devices has been used within the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community for many years, with open-source usage as per the references below since the 1960s. The term was not, however, widely used in non-technical and media reporting before the 2003 Iraq war.


An IED is a bomb fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy or incapacitate personnel or vehicles. In some cases, IEDs are used to distract, disrupt, or delay an opposing force, facilitating another type of attack. IEDs may incorporate military or commercially-sourced explosives, and often combine both types, or they may otherwise be made with home made explosives (HME).

An IED typically consists of an explosive charge (potentially assisted by a booster charge), a detonator, and an initiation system, which is a mechanism that initiates the electrical charge that sets off the device. An IED designed for use against armored targets such as personnel carriers or tanks will also include some form of armor penetrator, typically consisting of a copper rod or cone, propelled by the shaped explosive load. IEDs are extremely diverse in design, and may contain many types of initiators, detonators, penetrators, and explosive loads. Antipersonnel IEDs typically also contain shrapnel-generating objects such as nails or ball bearings (known as shipyard confetti after the metal waste found in the shipyards of Belfast). IEDs are triggered by various methods, including remote control, infra-red or magnetic triggers, pressure-sensitive bars or trip wires. In some cases, multiple IEDs are wired together in a daisy-chain, to attack a convoy of vehicles spread out along a roadway.

IEDs made by inexperienced designers or with substandard materials may fail to detonate, and in some cases actually detonate on either the maker or the emplacer of the device (these unintended early detonations are known as pre-detonations or "own goals" if the placer is killed in the detonation). Some groups, however, have been known to produce sophisticated devices that are constructed with components scavenged from conventional munitions and standard consumer electronics components, such as mobile phones, washing machine timers, pagers, or garage door openers. The sophistication of an IED depends on the training of the designer and the tools and materials available.

The majority of IEDs use conventional high-explosive charges as their explosive load. However, the threat exists that toxic chemical, biological, or radioactive (dirty bomb) material may be added to a device, thereby creating a host of other life-threatening effects beyond shrapnel, concussive blasts and fire normally associated with bombs. Chlorine liquid has been added to IEDs in Iraq, producing clouds of Chlorine Gas of dubious military efficacy.

A vehicle borne IED, or VBIED, is a military term for a car bomb or truck bomb. These are typically employed by suicide bombers, and can carry a relatively large payload. They can also be detonated from a remote location. VBIEDs can create additional shrapnel through the destruction of the vehicle itself, as well as using vehicle fuel as an incendiary weapon.


World War II

One of the first examples of coordinated large-scale use of IEDs was the Belarussian Rail War launched by Belarussian guerrillas against the Nazis during World War II. Both command-detonated and delayed-fuse IEDs were used to derail thousands of German trains during 1943–1944.


IEDs were used during the Vietnam War by the Viet Cong against land- and river-borne vehicles as well as personnel. They were commonly constructed using materials from unexploded American ordnance. Thirty-three percent of U.S. casualties in Vietnam and twenty-eight percent of deaths were officially attributed to mines; these figures include losses caused by both IEDs and commercially manufactured mines.

The Grenade in a Can was a simple and effective booby trap. A hand grenade with the safety pin removed and safety lever compressed was placed into a container such as a tin can, with a length of string or tripwire attached to the grenade. The can was fixed in place and the string was stretched across a path or doorway opening and firmly tied down. Alternatively, the string could be attached to the moving portion of a door or gate. When the grenade was pulled out of the can by a person or vehicle placing tension on the string, the spring-loaded safety lever would release and the grenade would explode.

The rubber band grenade was another booby trap. To make this device, a Viet Cong guerrilla would wrap a strong rubber band around the spring-loaded safety lever of a hand grenade and remove the pin. The grenade was then hidden in a hut. American and South Vietnamese soldiers would burn huts regularly to prevent them from being inhabited again, or to expose foxholes and tunnel entrances, which were frequently concealed within these structures. When a hut with the booby trap was torched, the rubber band on the grenade would melt, releasing the safety lever and blowing up the hut. This would often wound the soldiers with burning bamboo and metal fragments. This booby trap was also used to destroy vehicles when the modified grenade was placed in the fuel tank. The rubber band would be eaten away by the chemical action of the fuel, releasing the safety lever and detonating the grenade.

Another variant was the Mason jar grenade. The safety pin of hand grenades would be pulled and the grenades would be placed in glass Ball Mason jars which would hold back the safety lever. The safety lever would release upon the shattering of the jar and the grenade would detonate. This particular variant was popular with chopper crews, who would use them as improvised anti-personnel cluster bombs during air raids. They were easy to dump out of the flight door over a target, and the thick Ball Mason glass was resistant to premature shattering.

Northern Ireland

Throughout The Troubles, the Provisional IRA made extensive use of IEDs in their 1969-1997 campaign. From simple petrol bombs (Molotov cocktail) to sophisticated barrack buster mortars and remote controlled IEDs, the members of the PIRA developed and counter-developed devices and tactics. PIRA bombs became highly sophisticated, featuring anti-handling devices such as a mercury tilt switch or microswitches. These devices would detonate the bomb if it was moved in any way. Typically, the safety-arming device used was a clockwork Memopark timer, which armed the bomb five minutes after it was placed by completing an electrical circuit supplying power to the anti-handling device. Depending on the particular design (e.g. boobytrapped briefcase or car bomb) an independent electrical circuit supplied power to a conventional timer set for the intended time delay, e.g. 40 minutes. However, some electronic delays developed by PIRA technicians could be set to accurately detonate a bomb weeks after it was hidden, which is what happened in the Brighton hotel bomb attack of 1984. Initially, bombs were detonated either by timer or by simple command wire. Later bombs could be detonated by radio control. Initially, simple servos from radio-controlled aircraft were used to close the electrical circuit and supply power to the detonator. After the British developed jammers, PIRA technicians introduced devices which required a sequence of pulsed radio codes to arm and detonate them. These were harder to jam.

Roadside bombs were extensively used by the Provisional IRA. Typically, a roadside bomb was placed in a drain or culvert along a rural road and exploded by remote control when British Army or other security forces vehicles were passing. The most lethal example of these attacks came in 1979, when 18 British soldiers were killed by two culvert bombs in the Warrenpoint ambush. As a result of the use of these bombs, the British military had to stop transport by road in areas such as South Armagh, and use helicopter transport instead. In the 1980s and 1990s, all culverts were welded and concreted shut, so that explosives could not be placed in them.

Most IEDs used commercial or homemade explosives, although the use of Semtex-H smuggled in from Libya in the 1980s was also common from the mid 1980s onwards. Bomb Disposal teams from 321 EOD manned by Ammunition Technicians were deployed in those areas to deal with the IED threat.

In the early 1970s, at the height of the PIRA campaign, the British Army unit tasked with rendering safe IEDs, 321 EOD, sustained significant casualties while engaged in bomb disposal operations. This mortality rate was far higher than other high risk occupations such as deep sea diving, and a careful review was made of how men were selected for EOD operations. The review recommended bringing in psychometric testing of soldiers to ensure those chosen had the correct mental preparation for high risk bomb disposal duties.

The IRA came up with ever more sophisticated designs and deployments of IEDs. Booby Trap or Victim Operated IEDs (VOIEDs), were commonplace. The IRA engaged in an ongoing battle to gain the upper hand in electronic warfare with remote controlled devices. The rapid changes in development led 321 EOD to employ specialists from DERA (now privatised into QinetiQ), the Royal Signals, and Military Intelligence. This multi-unit approach led to the development and use of most of the modern weapons, equipment and techniques now used by EOD Operators throughout the rest of the world.

The bomb disposal operations were led by Ammunition Technicians and Ammunition Technical Officers from 321 EOD, and were trained at the Felix Centre at the Army School of Ammunition. To this day the Felix Centre is the foremost authority on IEDD in the world.


Following the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR on 27 December 1979, the Afghan Mujahideen were supplied with large quantities of military supplies from many Muslim states and from the United States. Among those supplies were many types of anti-tank mines. The Afghan Mujahideen often removed the explosives from several foreign anti-tank mines, and combined the explosives in tin cooking-oil cans for a more powerful blast. Often the foreign anti-tank mines were enclosed in plastic containers, making them difficult to detect. By combining the explosives from several mines and placing them in tin-cans, the Afghan Mujahideen made them easier to detect. After an IED was exploded, the Afghan Mujahideen often used direct fire weapons such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to continue the attack.

Afghan Mujahideen operating far from the border with Pakistan did not have a ready supply of foreign anti-tank mines. They preferred to make mines from Soviet unexploded ordnance. The anti-tank mines were rarely triggered by pressure fuses. They were almost always remotely detonated. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban and its supporters have used IEDs against American, ISAF, and Afghan military and civilian vehicles. While the number of such attacks has been far lower than those in Iraq, the number has been steadily increasing.


Hezbollah made extensive use of IEDs to attack Israeli forces after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985 but still kept troops stationed in a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah frequently used IEDs to attack Israeli vehicles in this area up until the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.

One such bomb killed Israeli Brigadier General Erez Gerstein on February 28, 1999, the highest-ranking Israeli to die in Lebanon since Yekutiel Adam's death in 1982.

Also in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, a Merkava Mark II tank was hit by a Hezbollah IED killing all 4 IDF servicemen on board, the first of two IEDs damaging a Merkava tank.


IEDs have also been popular in Chechnya, where Russian forces are currently engaged in fighting with rebels. While no concrete statistics are available on this matter, bombs have accounted for many Russian deaths in both the First Chechen War (19941996) and the Second (1999–present).


In the 2003–present Iraq War, IEDs have been used extensively against coalition forces and by the end of 2007 they have been responsible for approximately at least 40% of coalition deaths in Iraq.

Beginning in July 2003, the Iraqi insurgency used IEDs to target Coalition vehicles. According to, as of November 21 2007 approximately at least 40% of Coalition fatalities in the Iraq War are caused by IEDs. According to the Washington Post, 63% of U.S deaths in Iraq occurred due to IEDs. A French study shows that in Iraq, from March 2003 to November 2006, on a global deaths in the US-led Coalition soldiers, were caused by IEDs, i.e 41 %. That is to say more than in the "normal fights" (1027 dead, 34 %). Insurgents now use the bombs to target not only Coalition vehicles, but Iraqi police and civilian transportation as well.

Common locations for placing these bombs on the ground include animal carcasses, soft drink cans, and boxes. Typically they explode underneath or to the side of the vehicle to cause the maximum amount of damage; however, as vehicle armor was improved on military vehicles, insurgents began placing IEDs in elevated positions such as on road signs, utility poles, or trees, in order to hit less protected areas.

IEDs in Iraq may be made with artillery or mortar shells or with varying amounts of bulk or homemade explosives.

Despite the increased armor, IEDs have been killing soldiers with greater frequency. May 2007 was the deadliest month for IED attacks thus far with a reported 89 of the 129 Coalition casualties coming from an IED attack. According to the Pentagon, 250,000 tons (of 650,000 tons total) of Iraqi ordnance were looted, providing a large supply of ammunition for the insurgents.

In October 2005, The UK government charged that Iran was supplying insurgents with the technological know-how to make shaped charges, which focus the blast in a specific direction, and can pierce greater thicknesses of armor with less explosive. Both Iranian and Iraqi government officials deny this.

Types of devices

By warhead

The Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (JCS Pub 1-02) includes two definitions for improvised devices: improvised explosive devices (IED), and improvised nuclear device (IND).

Improvised Explosive Device - A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass, or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from nonmilitary components. Also called IED.

Improvised Nuclear Device - A device incorporating radioactive materials designed to result in the dispersal of radioactive material or in the formation of nuclear-yield reaction. Such devices may be fabricated in a completely improvised manner or may be an improvised modification to a US or foreign nuclear weapon. Also called IND.

These definitions address the Nuclear and Explosive in CBRNE. That leaves chemical, biological and radiological undefined. Four definitions have been created building on the structure of the JCS definition. The following terms have been created to standardize the language of first responders and members of the military and to correlate the operational picture. Improvised Chemical Device - A device incorporating the toxic attributes of chemical materials designed to result in the dispersal of these toxic chemical materials for the purpose of creating a primary patho-physiological toxic effect (morbidity & mortality), or secondary psychological effect (causing fear and behavior modification) on a larger population. Such devices may be fabricated in a completely improvised manner or may be an improvised modification to an existing weapon. Also called ICD, “al Mobtakar al Farheed

Improvised Biological Device - A device incorporating biological materials designed to result in the dispersal of vector borne biological material for the purpose of creating a primary patho-physiological toxic effect (morbidity & mortality), or secondary psychological effect (causing fear and behavior modification) on a larger population. Such devices are fabricated in a completely improvised manner. Also called IBD

Improvised Radioactive Device - A device incorporating radioactive materials designed to result in the dispersal of radioactive material for the purpose of area denial and economic damage, &/or for the purpose of creating a primary patho-physiological toxic effect (morbidity & mortality), or secondary psychological effect (causing fear and behavior modification) on a larger population. Such devices may be fabricated in a completely improvised manner or may be an improvised modification to an existing nuclear weapon. Also called a Radiological Dispersion Device (RDD) or “dirty bomb”

Improvised Incendiary Device - A device leveraging exothermic chemical reactions designed to result in the rapid spread of fire for the purpose of creating a primary patho-physiological effect (morbidity & mortality), or secondary psychological effect (causing fear and behavior modification) on a larger population or it may be used with the intent of gaining a tactical advantage. Such devices may be fabricated in a completely improvised manner or may be an improvised modification to an existing weapon. Also called IID, arson or "Molotov Cocktail".

By delivery mechanism

Car bomb/vehicle-borne

Vehicles may be laden with explosives, set to explode by remote control or by a passenger/driver, commonly known as a car bomb or VBIED pronounced vee-bid. On occasion the driver of the car bomb may have been coerced into delivery of the vehicle under duress, a situation known as a Proxy Bomb. Distinguishing features are low-riding vehicles with excessive weight, vehicles with only one passenger, and ones where the interior of the vehicles look like they have been stripped down and built back up. Car bombs can carry thousands of pounds of explosives and may be augmented with shrapnel to increase fragmentation. The U.S. State Department has published a guide on car bomb awareness.


Boats laden with explosives can be used against ships and areas connected to water. An early example of this type was the Japanese Shinyo suicide boats during World War II. The boats were laden with explosives and attempted to ram Allied ships, sometimes successfully, having sunk or severely damaged several American ships by war's end. Suicide bombers used a boat-borne IED to attack the USS Cole, US and UK troops have also been killed by boat-borne IEDs in Iraq.


Monkeys and War pigs were used as incendiaries around 1000 AD. More famously the "Anti-tank dog" and "Bat bomb" were developed during WW2. In recent times, a 2 year old child and 7 other people were killed by explosives strapped to a horse in the town of Chita in Colombia and a donkey was used in a similar fashion in Afghanistan.

Collar bombs

IED strapped to the neck of farmers have been used extensively by guerrillas in Colombia, as a way of extortion. American pizza delivery man Brian Douglas Wells was killed in 2003 by an explosive fastened to his neck, purportedly under duress from the maker of the bomb.

Suicide bombers

Suicide bombing usually refers to an individual wearing explosives and detonating them in order to kill others including themselves, a technique pioneered by LTTE. The bomber will conceal explosives on and around their person, commonly using a vest and will use a timer or some other trigger to detonate the explosives. The logic behind such attacks is the belief that an IED delivered by a human has a greater chance of achieving success than any other method of attack. In addition, there is the psychological impact of terrorists prepared to deliberately sacrifice or martyr themselves for their cause. Suicide bombers in Iraq are common in marketplaces and where Iraqi army and police recruits frequent.

Platter charges

A form of IEDs being used in Iraq are platter charges, which are rectangular or circular pieces of flat metal (usually steel) weighing a few kilograms with plastic explosives pressed onto one side of the platter. The amount of explosive used is usually equal, by weight, to the weight of the platter. The explosives propel the platter into the target with an approximate velocity of . The effective range can be as far as 50 meters, limited by the accuracy.

Explosively formed penetrators

IEDs have been deployed in the form of explosively formed penetrators, a special type of shaped charge that is effective at long standoffs from the target (50 meters or more). These are especially problematic to counter because they can be placed so far from their intended targets. An EFP is essentially a cylindrical shaped charge with a concave metal disc (often copper) in front, pointed inwards. The force of the shaped charge turns the disc into a bolt of molten metal, capable of penetrating the armor of most vehicles in Iraq.

Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions

In 2008, rocket-propelled IEDs, dubbed Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions (IRAM) by the military, came to be employed in numbers against U.S. forces in Iraq. They have been described as propane tanks packed with explosives and powered by 107mm rockets.

By trigger mechanisms

Command Wire Improvised Explosive Device (CWIED)

An IED utilizing and electrical firing cable which affords the terrorist complete control over the device right up until the moment of initiation.

Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED)

The trigger for this IED is controlled by radio link. The device is constructed so that the receiver is connected to an electrical firing circuit and the transmitter operated by the perpetrator at a distance, A signal from the transmitter causes the receiver to trigger a firing pulse which operates the switch. Usually the switch fires an initiator; however, the output may also be used to remotely arm an explosive circuit. Often the transmitter and receiver operate on a matched coding system which prevents the RCIED from being initiated by spurious radio frequency signals. An RCIED can be triggered from any number of different mechanisms including car alarms, wireless door bells, cell phones, pagers and encrypted GMRS radios.
Cell Phone RCIED
A radio-controlled IED encorporating a cell phone which is modified and connected to an electrical firing circruit. Cell phones operate in the UHF band in line of sight with base transceiver station (BTS) antennae sites. Commonly, receipt of a paging signal by phone is sufficient to initiate the IED firing circuit.

Victim-Operated Improvised Explosive Device (VOIED)

These are designed to function upon contact with a victim; also known as booby traps. VOIED switches are often well hidden from the victim or disguised as innocuous everyday objects. They are operated by means of movement, Switching methods include: tripwire, pressure mats, spring-loaded release, push, pull or tilt. Common forms of VOIED include the under-vehicle IED (UVIED) and improvised landmines.


The British also accused Iran and Hezbollah of teaching Iraqi fighters to use infrared light beams to trigger IEDs. As the occupation forces became more sophisticated in interrupting radio signals around their convoys, the insurgents adapted their triggering methods. In some cases, when a more advanced method was disrupted, the insurgents regressed to using uninterruptable means, such as hard wires from the IED to detonator; however, this method is much harder to effectively conceal. It later emerged however, that these so-called "advanced" IEDs were actually old IRA technology. The infrared beam method was perfected by the IRA in the early '90s after it acquired the technology from a botched undercover British Army operation. Many of the IEDs being used against coalition forces in Iraq were originally developed by the British Army who unintentionally passed the information on to the IRA.

Detecting and disarmament

Since these devices are improvised, there are no specific guidelines for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel to use to positively identify or categorize them. EOD personnel are trained in the rendering safe and disposal of IEDs. The presence of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) material in an IED requires additional precautions. As with other missions, the EOD operator provides the area commander with an assessment of the situation and of support needed to complete the mission.

Military forces and law enforcement personnel from around the world have developed a number of Render Safe Procedures (RSP) to deal with IEDs. RSPs may be developed as a result of direct experience with devices or by applied research designed to counter the threat. The claimed effectiveness of IED jamming systems, proven or otherwise, has caused IED technology to essentially regress to command-wire detonation methods. These are physical connections between the detonator and explosive device and cannot be jammed. However, these types of IEDs are more difficult to emplace quickly, and more readily detected.

Military forces from Canada, United Kingdom, Israel, Spain and the United States are at the forefront of counter-IED efforts, as all have direct experience in dealing with IEDs used against them in conflict or terrorist attacks.

Technological countermeasures are only part of the solution in the effort to defeat IEDs; experience, training and awareness remain key factors in combating them. For example, there are visual signs that may suggest the presence of an IED, such as recently turned-over soil or sand by a road, or an abandoned vehicle beside a road. Recognizing these telltale signs may be as valuable as having sophisticated detection equipment.

See also


External links

  • CFR-TV Episode 7 -- Video of a blue VBIED detonated from a distance.
  • iFilm video of vehicle struck by IED
  • Transcript of PBS Frontline episode Private Warriors -- this transcript corresponds to the above iFilm video: "On occasion, Erinys has recorded insurgent attacks using a camera mounted on the dashboard. Watch the next parked car on the right. The security detail immediately opens fire. The driver has been knocked unconscious. Then the dashboard camera is turned off. About 20 minutes later, the guards, unharmed, have secured the area. They report that one Iraqi was killed."
  • Defense Update The use of IED in Asymmetric Warfare
  • Defense Update Protection against IED
  • Defense Update Protected vehicles
  • Defense Update Israeli IED Neutralizer
  • IED Definition Structure Applied to the CBRN Threats (p9-11)

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