The real story behind Iranian IEDS?
February 12, 2007 8:48 PM   Subscribe

Shaped Explosive Charges - and Iranian "involvement" how much do we actually know about shaped charges in Iraq?

So, the administration has come out to the press full on with the story that the Iranians are supplying shaped charges, which may or may not be true. Leaving aside the political stuff, I want to find out about actual Iraqi abilities capabilities of making these things....

One of the points that they are making is that these are precisely machined devices, and there are no known factories capable of making these in Iraq, and so these things must be coming from another country. This, well, sounded like baloney. Actually, most likely because this sounded like very much like recycled baloney. The same story (true or not) was being peddled LAST MARCH, before it got overtaken by the reality of how really awful the situation in Iraq actually was! Note that the Routers link quoting General Pace as denying the existence of evidence is dead but quoted here.

A quick search on metafilter (google was useless) provided a couple comments and links: (one by insomnia_lj making the point that these things have been around since WWII.

Before this becomes chat-filter can anyone provide insight into what's garbage and what isn't? Can a modern charge capable of penetrating an Abrams be home-made in Iraq? Is there any reliable information on U.S. evidence except this secret meeting in Baghdad?
posted by stratastar to Law & Government (22 answers total)
Can a modern charge capable of penetrating an Abrams be home-made in Iraq?

Sure it can, if it's big enough.

The issue is not whether something can be made, but it's size, sophistication and method of delivery.

* Can you homebrew a shaped charge? Answer = yes.

* Can you homebrew an explosive device the size of a wine bottle in such a way that it creates an explosively formed projectile of molten copper, magnesium or molybdenum as its penetration vehicle? Answer = significantly less likely.

What's interesting, though, is how shaped charges are used very often in the oil industry.
posted by frogan at 9:13 PM on February 12, 2007

I love the way Iraq is going better than we know, when the situation is criticized, but nobody over there has a lathe, when suddenly there are shaped charges on the loose.

Shaped charges are easy to make, and are > 60 year old tech. There isn't a need for extreme precision.

That said, it is also possible that they were made in pretty much any other country on Earth.

As for Iran Iran Iran, anybody who studies history should know to use a truckload of salt in this sort of situation.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:21 PM on February 12, 2007

Don't have any links on hand, but the Abrams has reactive armor -- meaning it explodes back at whatever projectile is coming at it. The types of shaped charges that can pierce reactive armor are, in fact, quite advanced.
posted by FuManchu at 10:01 PM on February 12, 2007

America doesn't use reactive armor; it represents too much of a hazard to supporting riflemen. Reactive armor is useless against sabot rounds. Reactive armor is most effective against HEP, and secondarily against HEAT rounds which explode nearby.

The Abrams uses Chobham armor, which is entirely different.

A shaped charge has a distinct range from where it is located when it explodes. Basically, it can penetrate armor to a distance of about twice its diameter. So if it's located on the side of the road a couple of meters from where a tank is located, then it has to be really big in order to have any chance of affecting that tank.

The "shape" of a shaped charge is quite critical. When it comes to anti-tank rounds usually it's a cylinder of high explosive (TNT or something better) with a hollow cone indentation on the business end, which is plated with copper. In theory you could make that with a lathe -- but do you want to lathe a big charge of TNT? Not me; I'll watch (from about a hundred meters away) and tell your relatives about the explosion.

Really big shaped charges, like the ones they're talking about, are not something that Jihadi's Basement Workshop "improvises" out of leftover artillery shells. It doesn't work that way. These charges were machined, they were cast; it's the only safe way to create them that large. Casting TNT (or something more powerful) is very tricky; that's also something that the Jihadi Basement Workshop isn't going to be doing.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:44 PM on February 12, 2007

(Just to make something clear: a shaped charge that detonates too far away from its target is not effective. The further away it is, the wider it has to be in order to penetrate fully.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:46 PM on February 12, 2007

Or you can just use two.

I'm pretty sure they are only advanced in so far as they aren't what every nation on earth has had in a warehouse for 40 years :P

Well.. Actually that isn't so true. It is all very advanced, really. It's just that we don't know what kind of advanced. There is:
Requires $100,000 CNC machine in argon chamber. $100 million chemical processing plant. And, etc.
and then there is:
Requires techniques honed by 3 years of direct battlefield experience, with the assistance of techniques developed in Afghanistan, Ireland, Palestine, Vietnam, and who knows where else, over the last 40 years.
On top of that, there probably aren't any reactive panels on the bottom of an M1.. In fact, you sure the M1 is being deployed with reactive armour at all? (answer: yes, but only sides)

All this being a drawn out way of saying I don't know, but I do suffer from Mail Answer Syndrome..
posted by Chuckles at 10:49 PM on February 12, 2007

Not me; I'll watch (from about a hundred meters away) and tell your relatives about the explosion.

Is this machining process a 50/50 proposition, or a better than 99/1 proposition? Neither of us has the motivation for either, but we aren't in Iraq.. And anyway, can't you just machine a mold and then pour in the explosive? (answer: yes - no doubt that isn't exactly a risk free operation itself though..)
posted by Chuckles at 10:58 PM on February 12, 2007

These charges were machined...

That should have been "These charges weren't machined...

Chuckles, lathing TNT in normal atmosphere is suicide, without the benefit of taking infidels with you when you die.

Machining a mold and pouring in explosive isn't any "just"; it's really tough to do that without setting the explosive off. Think about it: you're heating the TNT (or something like Torpex) up enough so that it melts. You're doing that without igniting it. You're doing that without making any mistakes at all.

At least, you are if you don't want to find out right away whether they've run out of virgins before you get your 72.

The term "IED" stands for "Improvised Explosive Device". The ones they're complaining about are not even remotely improvised. They cannot be created out whatever comes to hand, and they shouldn't really be called IEDs. Unfortunately, "IED" has shifted meaning and it now means "big fucking roadside bomb", whether improvised or made in a special factory by experts, like these are.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:13 PM on February 12, 2007

Just to clarify for the original questioner, few doubt that at least some of these bombs, EFPs as theyre called, originate from Iran. The real question is whether they're getting into Iraq at the behest of the Iranian leadership, or whether it's being done by scattered elements in the Iranian government acting independently. Despite the vague headline, the NY Times, "Skeptics Doubt U.S. Evidence on Iran Action in Iraq," says as much:

Both Democratic and Republican officials on Capitol Hill said that while they do not doubt that the weapons are being used to attack American troops, and that some of those weapons are being shipped into Iraq from Iran, they are still uncertain whether the weapons were being shipped into Iraq on the orders of Iran’s leaders.

posted by Brian James at 3:07 AM on February 13, 2007

I agree with the comments here: Yes, a shaped charge can kill an MBT (main battle tank), but it can be tricky -- if for no other reason because of the timing involved. Unless the target is stationary, the vector of force in the explosion has to be just right and in the right proximity.

In fact, shaped charges (in the form of attachable mines) are what's used by SEAL teams to sink ships -- often battleships with a lot more armor than a tank.

posted by gb77 at 4:32 AM on February 13, 2007

This guy makes a shaped chrage by HAND, and then shows it going thru a 1.5" steel plate.
He uses plastic explosive, a pipe and a piece of shaped copper.

hand made shaped charge
posted by whoda at 4:57 AM on February 13, 2007

As others have pointed out, I doubt there is any question that some weapons being used in Iraq originate in Iran.
I would imagine, though, that the full list of "countries of origin" for weapons in Iraq would read like any other list of arms-exporting nations...China, Russia, France, Cuba...I wouldn't doubt that a good lump of arms from the US and Israel were finding their way into the country.
War is Good Business™
posted by Thorzdad at 5:10 AM on February 13, 2007

Whoda, that charge wouldn't even hardly dent 14 inches of Chobham Armor on an M1 Abrams tank.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:53 AM on February 13, 2007

Since the roadside bombs in Iraq are attacking Up armored HMMVs and M2's Chobham Armor is not a concern.

Additionally having a 152mm shell or 2 wired together to go off 1 meter from the drivers door means that It doesn't matter if they use a shaped charge or not.
posted by Megafly at 11:41 AM on February 13, 2007

Megafly, those are not the IEDs that are being complained about. There are some which are specifically being used against MBTs which use custom-designed shaped charges. Those are not "improvised"; the evidence is apparently quite strong that they're being produced in a factory in Iran and imported to Iraq.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:09 PM on February 13, 2007

Thanks guys! It does make much more sense that there is a spectrum of crude -> advanced weapons being manufactured across the border. The porous borders of Iraq do mean that really anything can come in...
posted by stratastar at 3:03 PM on February 13, 2007

For whatever it's worth, here's another smoking gun. In this case there's no doubt whatever that these sniper rifles got to Iraq via the Iranian government, since there are serial numbers on the hundred rifles of that type which American forces have captured so far.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:16 PM on February 13, 2007

Well, I'm too sleepy to really jump on it, but that one really is amazing SCDB. Pretty convincing story, and a really strange choice.

$10,000 sniper rifles? I can't see how that is a sensible choice for insurgents, but I guess Iran is just made of money, so they don't care..

Also, apparently the US military considers .50 caliber to be "large caliber", and hence prohibited for use against individual human targets - although they have been ignoring that policy for years, or they changed their interpretation?! Not that anyone pays attention to "rules of war" anymore (least of all the insurgents, obviously, but my point is the irony, not the general debate).
posted by Chuckles at 10:51 PM on February 13, 2007

You made comments about how hard it is to homebrew shaped charges - you don't need a lathe to machine explosives. You just need to machine the inverted copper penetrator, you then pack it with RDX and arrange for it to initiate just off the target.

Frogan, all shaped charges create a plasma cone and a slug. This isn't "significantly less likely" this is what a shaped charge does.

The old IRA Mark 6 horizontal mortar was a shaped charge device, taking advantage of the shape of the base of some hairspray cannisters. It isn't rocket science.

The only tricky thing is getting it to initiate at the right distance which is why they often have a distinctive needle nosed design

Arguing that this is "something that the Jihadi Basement Workshop isn't going to be doing" is plain wrong - where do you get your information from?
posted by fingerbang at 12:38 PM on February 14, 2007

Frogan, all shaped charges create a plasma cone and a slug. This isn't "significantly less likely" this is what a shaped charge does.

Not all shaped charges use hard-to-find-in-Iraq materials like molybdenum and and magnesium, though.

Imagine you're a homebrew guy. Do you even need a shaped charge to cause havoc? Not all. A car trunk full o' dynamite and nails is just fine. An artillery shell by the side of the road will suit your needs.

So why go to the trouble to make a shaped charge?

Ergo, the shaped charges we see being used are either stolen by the rank-and-file guys (as I mentioned their usage in the oil industry above) or acquired through other means (Iran). And that's what the evidence is pointing to.
posted by frogan at 1:45 PM on February 14, 2007

Frogan, you need a shaped charge to keep the explosion directional when you launch it. You need to launch it so you can keep your distance and add flexibility. This is asuming you wish to survive.

The 'power to weight' ratio also means your SC is a lot more portable. A lightweight tube instead of a bulky suitcase that needs to be left by the side of the road and wired to a command line with some poor guy hoolding the other end. Would you want that job?

If you want to take out markets, these don't work, but if you wish to hit light armour you will gravitate towards this technology.

But hey, if you think "Iran (is) what the evidence is pointing to" then who am i to argue with you.
posted by fingerbang at 2:58 PM on February 14, 2007

The only tricky thing is getting it to initiate at the right distance which is why they often have a distinctive needle nosed design

It turns out they are talking about a somewhat different type of charge, called an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP). This type of charge is designed to put more energy into the slug of metal produced, instead of into the jet of gas/plasma/whatever. EFPs can be used at fairly large stand off distances. Check out this presentation I found about them: Warhead Technology Advancements.

I can't see any reason to suspect that building an EFP would be substantially harder than the shaped charge in the video whoda links, but I guess that is an interesting question in itself..
posted by Chuckles at 10:50 PM on February 14, 2007

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