The Use of IEDs in the Russia–Ukraine War 


By George McKerrow

With IEDs being frequently employed by both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war, George McKerrow writes that C-IED training, knowledge, and equipment must be prioritized.

There seems to be a prevailing thought that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are not a main concern among the numerous Russian threats in Ukraine. However, Russia has in fact been using IEDs since the initial invasion of Crimea back in March 2014. I think that it is fair to say that as we now enter the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we are continuing to see the use of IEDs as a valid weapon platform for clandestine-style attacks by both countries.

Much of this information would have been classified in the past. However, it is now often open source due to the proliferation of social media as well as contractors working with non-governmental organizations conducting demining operations, battlefield area clearance, and explosive remnant of war removal operations.

During the Global War on Terrorism, our company, Inert Products, was tasked with replicating many of the IEDs that were being found in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea was that you could train against the threat ahead of time. You do not want to be battling and dealing with a threat you have never encountered before. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” as they say.  

United States Marine Corps C-IED Training 

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) are one of the few that openly recognize and address the need to conduct counter-IED (C-IED) training. During a panel discussion on training and education at the Modern-Day Marine Expo in Washington, D.C. in 2022, Head of Training Command at the USMC, Maj. Gen Julian D. Alford, addressed the current IED threat in Ukraine. 

When asked what lessons had been learned from the ongoing fight against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and could be applied to training now, he replied: “No. 1 is we have to have C-IED programs stood back up, period. It’s criminal if we don’t train our Marines on C-IED before they deploy.”

Haunting Memories 

In my opinion, the U.S. Army is plagued by all the bad memories from the deaths and injuries suffered by its servicemen and women in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. A total of around 1,790 U.S. troops died from IEDs in Iraq and 828 in Afghanistan. Those numbers would increase greatly if we were to add the numbers of servicemen and women killed that were from our coalition partners. Many more were injured physically and mentally because of IED incidents.

The U.S. military longed to return to conventional warfare training and leave behind the days of counterinsurgency warfare training. It would now appear that many want to put these painful events behind us and move forward from them rather than recognize and address their continued use in various conflict arenas. In the U.S., we have by and large stopped training our servicemen and women on the current IED threat. We are told that the danger is from regular ordnance being used on the battlefield. I want to challenge that and say that there is in fact a high threat from IEDs still being used in modern traditional warfare, such as in Ukraine.

Two stills from a video showing a Ukrainian drone dropping an IED on a Russian tank, © Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

Why use an IED?

Let us firstly start by defining what an IED is. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), IEDs are devices that are “placed or fabricated in an improvised manner; that incorporate destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals; that are designed to destroy, disfigure, distract, or harass; and that often include materials from military sources”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs writes that IEDs are “cheap and easy to construct” and “allow lightly armed and barely trained militants to engage far better-equipped security forces”.

“They help tip the balance in an asymmetric conflict by enabling insurgents to inflict casualties without exposing themselves. The unpredictable, combat-avoiding nature of IED attacks can effectively sap the morale of security forces,” they continue. “IEDs significantly limit the mobility of troops as time-consuming sweeps for concealed devices need to be conducted. Forces are weighed down with equipment – metal detectors, electronic counter-measure systems, and robots.”

In modern warfare, we have also learned a lot about tactics, techniques, and procedures used by insurgent groups worldwide. The Russians and Ukrainians are using these tactics because they are unpredictable, giving them a significant advantage on the modern battlefield. We might not be seeing so many instances of homemade explosives being used yet, and this might be because there is no shortage of regular military explosives being made available to both sides.    

IEDs in the Russia-Ukraine War

One of the most popular weapons of choice in the Russia-Ukraine war are air-dropped improvised munitions. In one of the first instances where unmanned aerial systems were armed, it was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who brought this weapon to the attention of the world back in 2016 near Mosul, Northern Iraq.

We also hear about instances where conventional ordnance is set up to function unconventionally. In my mind, both newly manufactured ordnance quickly adapted to new warfare techniques such as air-dropped improvised munitions and modified conventional ordnance belong to the same category. Let’s call it what it is, and that is an IED.

Other more “traditional” IEDs are being consistently used in Ukraine. On April 28, 2023, the Ministry of Emergencies of Ukraine defused a victim-operated IED consisting of a MON-50 anti-personnel mine with a MUV-2 fuse and trip wire.

Exactly one month later, drone footage from May 28, 2023, revealed that a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) was parked on the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine, which activated on June 6. The Ukrainian Special Forces have suggested that the VBIED was not powerful enough to destroy the dam alone but may have been used to amplify a larger planned explosion from inside. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam flooded up to 520km2, killing at least 58 people.

A still from drone footage taken by the Ukrainian military of a suspected VBIED parked on the Kakhovka Dam, © Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

Furthermore, in a defense intelligence update on July 13, 2023, the British Ministry of Defence highlighted reports that Russia had been using antiquated armored vehicles packed with several tons of explosives as VBIEDs, largely around Marinka near Donetsk. The report added that there was a “realistic possibility” of this tactic being pioneered by Chechen forces who have a “heritage” of being skilled in IED use after the Chechen Wars in the 1990s.

On the other side of the conflict, on March 2, 2024, at the Dzhankoi checkpoint in northern Crimea, occupying Russian FSB officers reportedly defused an explosive device that was attached to the bottom of the car of a law enforcement officer traveling from the occupied Kherson region. The IED was under the driver’s seat so that the owner of the car faced certain death if it detonated.

An IED found in a car by occupying Russian forces at the Dzhankoi checkpoint in southern Ukraine, © FSB 

The IED Threat is Not Going Away

The IED threat is not going away, and we are seeing proof of that right now in both Ukraine and many other areas of the world. The spread of knowledge through online platforms has facilitated their production and deployment, presenting challenges for counterterrorism efforts globally. Combating the menace of IEDs requires comprehensive strategies, including intelligence gathering and detection technology development.

It is essential that we train against these threats and keep our servicemen and women up to speed on the latest threats. C-IED training is not just for EOD teams and combat engineers; everyone must have some level of training on at least recognition and components used in their construction.

The Only Thing Certain in Life is Change

In 2016, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) underwent a significant transformation. It was restructured and renamed the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO). This change was made to enhance its effectiveness and better align its operations with the evolving threat landscape of improvised threats beyond explosives, including drones and chemical weapons.

We might be involved in vehicle-mounted or dismounted operations in a hostile environment in the future, and we must assume that the IED threat will be present. For this reason, we must keep up to date with the latest IED threats and we must ensure that we have the equipment and knowledge required to ensure success for participation in any future war or conflict that we may be involved in.

George Javier McKerrow is a C-IED expert with 24 years of service in the British Army, having served in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He also has extensive experience in the civilian sector teaching C-IED in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. He is currently the Director of International Sales and Training Coordinator at Inert Products and MAC 7.

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