Wednesday, January 11, 2006

IEDs and bird flu

A UPI Outside View Commentator, Hannah Levine, poses an intriguing question: How is an improvised explosive device like bird flu? An improvised explosive devise, or IED, is the term for a "roadside bomb," the top killer of US soldiers in Iraq. The military is desperate for some kind of technical solution to the IED problem. But Ms. Levine doubts there is one:
There is no doubt that the military needs better tools for fighting these increasingly deadly explosives. Rather than the sprint to build a nuclear bomb, though, the fight against IEDs will resemble the ongoing fight against the influenza virus -- another "primitive," adaptable and lethal enemy.

Like the fight against influenza, the campaign against IEDs must be designed to confront an evolving threat. Furthermore, just as flu vaccines cannot replace a global strategy for public health, IED counter-measures will never substitute for a broad strategy for winning asymmetric wars.

Improvised explosive devices are not defined by any common technological principle. An IED is anything which blows up but was not built in a large factory; the specifics of how this is achieved vary widely. For example, IEDs may be detonated by remote controllers, timers, or pressure triggers.

This lack of standardization is the weapon's secret strength against technological counter-measures. A counter-IED technology which defeats one type will be useless against another: a jammer which disables a remotely-detonated IED is useless against timers, and improved armor can be pierced by shaped charges.


An analogy between technology and biology illustrates how the diversity of IED technology enables insurgents to adapt to new defenses. The resilience of insurgent technology is, literally, an evolutionary capability, fueled by the wealth of variation within the insurgent "gene pool."

Whereas a large-scale weapons manufacturer ensures that all the bombs it produces are identical, insurgent bomb-making workshops must make do with the materials and expertise at hand. Each workshop puts out a product with different capabilities and limitations; some products will prove more resistant than others to the defenses employed against them.

If one workshop's bombs succeed where others have failed, the others will do their best to imitate it. The "fittest" technique will "reproduce," continuing to spread until new defenses favor a new "breed" of bombs. (Hannah Levine via UPI)
The only small consolation about this brilliant analogy is it suggests our public health leaders aren't any more clueless than our military leaders. As I said, small consolation, and not even that if you aren't in the leaderless public health community. If you are, it means you aren't alone. Very small consolation, indeed.

Ms. Levine suggests a "Manhattan Project" against IEDs, as suggested by some (a suggestion also made by Bill Frist for bird flu) is not the right strategy. As in bird flu, there is not likely to be a "silver bullet," i.e., no magic IED vaccine or antiviral. The fight against bird flu is making the same mistake as the fight against IEDs.

Of course the IED problem is much easier. It could be solved by leaving Iraq.