TCS Daily

High Explosive Chess in Fallujah

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

There was a very telling piece of video shown on one of the cable stations on the second day of the battle for Fallujah. Taken from an aircraft over the city, it showed a laser-guided bomb landing at a precise spot on a street where terrorists had hidden an elaborate network of explosive devices.

The blossoming explosion of the laser bomb was followed by an ominous chain reaction of explosions up and down the street. It seems likely that the huge overpressure from the American bomb set off the fuses of the implanted bombs along the street.

It was a fearsome sight, flash after flash up and down the street upon which the terrorist forces had hoped to surprise American or Iraqi troops. The so-called "daisy chaining" of bombs is common in Iraq

But from high above the U.S. has been watching the Islamothugs plant their bombs for weeks, noting the position and characteristics of most of them. This is not to say there will not be some surprises left in Fallujah. And sometimes, in the midst of a firefight, a soldier or Marine's concentration is focused on the matter at hand rather than his immediate surroundings.

Troops have to be constantly alert. Anything - from a dead dog's carcass, a stray brick or building block to a garbage bag, an abandoned bike or a downed palm tree - may be an IED (improvised explosive device). The terrorists have even been known to plant them in Army "meal- ready- to-eat" (MRE) pouches.

But thus far, good training, good preparation and good intelligence have helped coalition forces defuse, destroy or avoid most of the elaborate booby traps they have encountered in the city. The use of overhead reconnaissance photos and video, coordinated with on-ground intelligence and surveillance, has been of immense help.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is, pour some fire into a suspicious object, like an abandoned car, and see if it goes up. Some of the bombs are simply explosives with a fuse hooked to a remote electronic device such as a wireless doorbell (available in most Iraqi hardware stores), or the guts from a remote control toy vehicle.

There are varied electronic ways, which it is best to remain vague about, by which many of these devices can be made to explode prematurely. In some cases, for instance, Air Force EC-130 electronic warfare aircraft will fly over suspected areas and set off planted IEDs. In other cases, wheeled robots are used.

But many booby traps are traditional pressure mines. In these cases, two pieces of battlefield technology - one old, the other new - are helpful in clearing suspicious areas of bombs or land mines.

The first is the venerable Bangalore torpedo (official Army designation M1A2), which is basically a super-glorified pipe bomb. If you saw the movie "Saving Private Ryan," that was a Bangalore torpedo that Tom Hanks put together under harrowing conditions during the initial beach assault at the beginning of the movie.

It consists of 10 sections of tubing, each 5-feet long, filled with a deadly combination of TNT and RDX explosives. You assemble these tubes end to end (as many as you need up to 50 feet) then shove the thing out across a mined area and set it off with a short time delay fuse while you run or crawl for cover.

This is a dangerous job. Especially under fire. The previous two sentences are extreme understatements.

Now being experimented with in Iraq is at least a partial replacement for the old Bangalore (yes, it's named for the city in India). The military has come up with APOBS, the anti-personnel obstacle breaching system, which at first blush looks like a bunch of hand grenades tied together on a long string.

But APOBS is actually a pretty ingenious device, with the potential to clear mined areas over a much greater distance and in far less time than a Bangalore. Remember, with the Bangalore you have to assemble it (130 pounds of explosive laden pipe) and then crawl right up to the area to be breached. The APOBS, on the other hand, is a stand-off device.

It comes in two backpacks and can be set up and launched in one or two minutes. The packs contain 150 feet of reinforced nylon line to which are attached 108 mini-grenades. This line is tethered to a small rocket which is launched from one end of one of the packs (which are opened and laid on the ground).

The rocket is fired, dragging the line of grenades out over the mined area, three times as far as the "reach" of a Bangalore. As did the laser-guided bomb mentioned above, the grenades set off the mines by blast overpressure.

These devices would not be successful against more sophisticated double-impulse mines, or anti-tank mines, which require much higher pressures to detonate. But against most of the IEDs employed by the terrorists they can be quite effective. Our troops have a one-ton "big brother" of APOBS called MICLIC (for mine clearing line charge). With its bigger rocket and bigger charges it tackles more formidable obstacles.

Feedback from Marines who have employed APOBS indicate unfamiliarity with it and doubts about its efficacy. There are some indications that the string of grenades does not always reach full range across an obstacle. Many Marines seem prone to cling to the old, familiar and proven Bangalore.

Street fighting, such as is taking place in Fallujah is a deadly, dirty, treacherous business. And anxiety over IEDs can lead to mistakes under fire. It's best to get them out of the picture as quickly and efficiently as possible. Tried technologies like the Bangalore and new ones, like APOBS, help give highly trained U.S. troops a little more edge while playing chess with bombs in urban combat.


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