The Most Effective Weapon on the Modern Battlefield Is… Concrete?
by John Spencer
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Modern War Blog, hosted by West Point’s Modern War Institute (MWI). It is reposted on The Havok Journal with the permission of the original author. You can read the original article here, and while you’re there check out some of the other great work going on at MWI, like their amazing podcast series.
Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours.
Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried.
No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats.
This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars.
Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.
When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete. But that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours.
By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons) and large ones like the Alaska (twelve feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (twelve feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (fifteen to twenty-eight feet tall).
One of the first uses for concrete on the battlefield was in response to growing numbers of IEDs. As early as 2004, the major tactical and technical focus in Iraq was oriented at stopping these roadside bombs. One of the primary tactics used to fight the IED threat was to line every major road with twelve-foot-tall concrete T-walls. Soldiers spent days, weeks, and months lining first every major highway and then other, smaller roads with concrete barriers. At over $600 a barrier, the cost of concrete during the eight years of the Iraq War was billions of dollars.
To be sure, concrete walls did not eliminate the IED threat. As with any protective obstacle, they should have been under direct observation, which was not always feasible. Consequently, the enemy adapted by placing IEDs in or on top of barriers. They also used advanced forms of IEDs from foreign sources—explosively formed penetrators, many of which US military officials believe originated in Iran—that could penetrate any concrete wall.
This allowed IEDs to be placed on the opposite, non-road side of barriers. But the concrete walls did take away the ease of access for enemy forces to emplace IEDs, degrade the lethality of their homemade devices, and forced them towards specialized materials that could be interdicted at checkpoints—which themselves were most effective when concrete walls were used to canalize traffic to them.
They also took away the ability of insurgents to freely transit Baghdad with large, vehicle-borne IEDs, which created mass casualties and threatened the authority of the Iraqi government.
IEDs were not the only major threat to American forces. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US forces also began to come under direct attack by mortars and rockets in their outposts and bases. These attacks became even more dangerous when US forces moved out of large bases and into smaller outposts deep in cities and among the populations, where the ability to maintain safe standoff distances or retaliate to indirect fire was difficult for fear of causing civilian casualties.
Again, the solution was concrete. Slabs were placed to form not only the walls of compounds, but also walls around and bunkers between every structure within them. This significantly reduced the effects of any enemy incoming fire.
Concrete also gave soldiers freedom of maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools.
Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, and existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.
The demand for concrete was immense. New contracts had to be developed and concrete factories had to be found, built, and expanded in multiple places across Iraq. Getting concrete became as important a mission as emplacing it.
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