Saturday, 15 September 2007

The myth of the "super-bomb"

One approaches this subject with a degree of trepidation, not on the basis of expert knowledge but with political antennae twitching at the scent of something not quite right.

The subject is the so-called "super-bomb", more prosaically known as an "explosively formed projectile" (EFP), a weapon that has made an appearance in Iraq and been used with deadly effect against coalition forces.

Dealing briefly with the technical issues before developing the substantive argument, the basis of the bomb (illustrated) is actually very simple. It is made from a steel cylinder (often a sawn-off pipe), sealed at one end and filled with explosive. Into the open end is fixed a shallow dish, usually made of copper. When the bomb is detonated, it blows out the dish, the force of the explosion inverting it and converting it into a high-speed slug of metal which – in theory at least – can penetrate several inches of armoured steel.

Over term, it has acquired a fearsome reputation as an "unstoppable" weapon, against which there is no protection.

That EFPs exist, that they have been used to devastating effect and that they can penetrate varying thicknesses of armour is no myth – the photograph (right) shows the hole made by an EFP, having penetrated a US Bradley MICV.

What gets the antennae twitching though is the suspicion that these devices are a good deal less effective than is made out, and that they are being hyped up for a variety of political purposes.

On the one hand, the alleged complexity of these bombs is being used to support claims of Iranian involvement in the insurgency in Iraq, the basis being that they are too complex for local manufacture and therefore, must be made in sophisticated arms factories, which could only be found in Iran.

This has been the subject of multiple allegations by the British and American military and by politicians of both nations (viz the example pictured of a slide taken from a US press briefing on EFPs) – and treated with some scepticism as being part of a strategy to ramp up pressure against Iran.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that simple inspection of a range of photographs shows them to be of relatively crude construction, well within the capability of any smithy and a machine shop equipped with a simple lathe to produce.

Where there seems to be the confusion, therefore, is between construction and design. It is in this latter aspect that the complexity comes in as, although the construction is straightforward, the physics behind these devices borders on the limits of science. Thus, to design a successful weapon requires facilities of tremendous sophistication, involving enormous cost. That suggests a possible alternative scenario – that the bombs were designed in Iran but produced locally in Iraq.

But, if it is politically convenient to blame Iran for the manufacture of these weapons, there is also another, possibly more sinister motivation for over-hyping them. This, we discussed in a post in June last year. It was then that we observed - in the wake of the first public report about this weapon in The Sunday Telegraph - that:

…by allowing ignorant and gullible journalists to run away with the idea that this is somehow a new and different threat, the government absolves itself from any failure to protect our troops from it and, by implying that there is no defence against, calls for introduction of counter-measures are sidestepped.
It struck me at the time, when the campaign against the "Snatch" Land Rover was at its height, that the release of the details of the EFP might not be a coincidence. The real reasons might have been on the one hand to absolve the Army and the MoD from any blame for not providing better protected vehicles and, on the other, to reduce pressure for those vehicles, on the basis that more armour would not make any difference.

Certainly, during the inquest of some of the soldiers who had died after what was claimed to be an EFP attack on a "Snatch" Land Rover, an MoD witness was at pains to put this argument.

Furthermore, at the end of the inquest, when the Coroner made her judgement – and refused to comment on the adequacy or otherwise of "Snatch" Land Rovers, as "outside her jurisdiction" – that same witness was seen to punch the air and let out an exultant, "Yessss!".

Now, as to the substantive thesis - that there might be a degree of hype behind the growing reputation of this weapon - one strand of evidence to that effect came out at this self-same inquest.

Although the three soldiers who were killed were riding a lightly-armoured "Snatch" Land Rover, it appears that the main projectile – if it was indeed an EFP – did not penetrate the armour but came through the (unarmoured) window. And, despite thus encountering minimal resistance on the way in, there were no exit holes in the vehicle. The force of the projectile appears to have been spent.

This less than impressive penetrative power seems to gel with the experience of the Israelis, who met the weapon in Lebanon (see above) and reported that the initial types had been relatively ineffective against armoured vehicles, but the heavier versions have caused catastrophic results in softer or lightly armoured vehicles (my emphasis).

Further, while there are diverse reports of vehicles being hit by EFPs, there is a remarkable video report (grab illustrated) where a contractor's lightly armoured SUV took the full force of an EFP yet the crew survived uninjured – the driver, in fact, standing behind his damaged vehicle to demonstrate the point. All of this supports a contention that the weapon is not always as potent as it is made out to be.

However, that has not stopped the media – and in particular The Daily Telegraph - talking up the threat. Even yesterday, the newspaper was offering a bleak assessment, claiming that EFPs "have penetrated the very best of British armour and regularly kill and injure soldiers".

Despite this, there is very good reason to be suspicious of the reports in which claims are made for EFP involvement. There was, for instance, the attack on the Warrior MICV in Basra in April, with the tragic outcome of two women soldiers being killed, two other also dying. Although contemporary reports spoke of a "colossal bomb" – with agency pictures of the resultant crater being published (below right) - The Telegraph claimed it to be an "explosively formed projectile".

Yet, the whole point (and effect) of the EFP is that it is a "directed energy" weapon, rather than a blast bomb and, rather than being buried in the ground – so as to form a crater of that magnitude – the devices must be positioned to the side of the carriageway, above ground level, to achieve their effect. Almost certainly, this was not an EFP.

The previous year, in August, the Telegraph had also reported on the "incredible escape" of five TA soldiers when the front section of their "Snatch" Land Rover had been blown off, the chassis set ablaze and the engine block catapulted more than 80 yards away. According to one of the soldiers in the vehicle, the Land Rover had been doing 30mph and the bomb went off about 20 yards in front it. "There was a massive explosion," he said, "and the Land Rover skidded across the road."

From the many eye-witness accounts (and terrorist videos) of EFP detonations, however, the single thing that emerges is the confined nature of the initial "propellant" detonation and the limited nature of the damage to target vehicles. When the weapon works as intended, the body of the target vehicle suffers one or more punctures, with very little additional damage apart from a certain amount of "peppering" if the projectile fragments - as opposed to the multiple penetrations seen here (pictured).

The account offered by the paper, therefore, is incompatible with other reports of EFP attacks.

That soldiers and others might misreport the nature of attacks on them is by no means an unusual phenomenon. During the 1944 Normandy campaign, many described German attacks on their positions as being supported by the fearsome "Tiger" tanks. In fact, they most often were more numerous Mk IV Panzer. So pervasive in the British Army was so-called "Tiger fever" that I recall my father, who was with the BEF at Dunkirk in 1940, gravely telling me that his unit was attacked by these tanks – which first made an appearance in North Africa in late 1942.

One can imagine, therefore, with so much emphasis being given to these "super-bombs", that every IED becomes an EFP.

There remains, however, the puzzle as to why the EFP does not always appear to be the potent weapon that, in theory, it should be. Therein is perhaps a clue which suggests that it is indeed a locally produced weapon. Many pictures of damaged vehicles do show that high degree of fragmentation whereas, if the device works correctly, it is supposed to project a single slug of metal. Typically, therefor, it should show just one clear puncture (pictured) - with the rest of the vehicle relatively undamaged. It is that which gives it its power. That it is so often breaking up possibly suggests that either the design is less than optimal or that flaws in manufacture and/or assembly means that the weapon is under-performing.

This could explain why the insurgents, in many recent attacks, seem to have been resorting to the "colossal bombs" rather that the potentially just as lethal EFP.

That much, though – as with the rest of this analysis – is surmise. But when there are clear military and political advantages in talking up a threat, it is as well to be aware that these imperatives can colour media reports, to the extent that they do not wholly convey the reality of the situation on the ground.

Thus, the purpose of this post is to raise questions and to sound a note of caution - that the lurid headlines may be pursuing more of a political agenda than is immediately apparent. There could be more "super-hype" than "super-bomb".