The Imminent Spread of EFPs
By Fred Burton
Iraqi and coalition troops involved in Operation Black Eagle, the ongoing effort to secure the city of Ad Diwaniyah, discovered several factories producing explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), U.S. Central Command said April 8. The troops also reported having uncovered caches of completed EFPs and IEDs along with explosives and other bombmaking material at various other locations across the city.
Since the invasion of Iraq, IEDs have taken a tremendous toll on coalition and Iraqi forces. The insurgents have used a number of different IED designs, including suicide vests, vehicle-borne bombs — some of them large truck bombs packed with chlorine — and roadside bombs. Of the roadside IEDs, perhaps the most effective are those that incorporate EFPs.
EFPs have been part of the military inventory of many countries for years. The U.S. Army, for example, added the M-2 Selectable Lightweight Attack Munition (aptly named the SLAM) to its inventory in 1990. EFP technology also is used in anti-tank guided missiles such as the TOW 2B. The EFP concept is not new on the militant front either. In 1989, the Red Army Faction used a "platter charge" (similar to an EFP) to penetrate the armored Mercedes carrying German banker Alfred Herrhausen, killing him. Militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas also have used EFP devices (like the Hamas Shawaz) against Israeli armored vehicles for several years now. In fact, the heavy use of such devices by Hezbollah in Lebanon is one of the reasons why Iran is being blamed for the appearance of EFP devices in Iraq.
EFPs, however, have never before been deployed on the scale seen in Iraq. Clearly, they are being heavily deployed now because they are effective, economical and easy to make (many are of an improvised nature and fabricated in makeshift factories such as those discovered in Ad Diwaniyah). These three factors, along with the international aspect of the insurgency in Iraq, ensure that militants elsewhere will adopt the improvised EFP technology. In fact, considering the ease with which EFPs are constructed, Iranian involvement in regards to the Iraqi EFPs would not be required. The proliferation of this technology, though, has some serious security implications. Though this certainly will affect military forces, the most significant implications could be in the civilian security realm.
What is an EFP?
An explosively formed projectile, sometimes referred to as an explosively formed penetrator, is a simple device composed of a case, a liner and an explosive filler — though employing such a device in the field also requires a detonator and a firing chain to initiate that detonator. The firing chain can vary widely, from a hardwired command-detonated system to a system that involves modifying the infrared safety beam from a garage door opener.
The case of an improvised EFP is often constructed from a short section of well-casing pipe with a plate welded to one end. A small hole is drilled in the pipe to allow a blasting cap to be inserted. The pipe is then filled with high explosive and a metal liner, most often made of copper, is affixed over the open end of the pipe.
EFPs utilize the same general principle as a shaped charge that focuses the power of an explosive device. In a traditional shaped-charge munition, like the warhead on an anti-tank rocket, a thin metal cone is used to achieve this focusing effect. When crushed, the convex metal cone in the warhead becomes a high-velocity projectile that, with a jet of super-heated gas from the explosive, penetrates the armor. In order for a shaped charge to work most effectively, however, it must have a relatively short standoff distance.
The EFP munition is somewhat like a traditional shaped charge, but it incorporates a metal liner with less of an angle. So, instead of a cone, the liner is more of a concave lens or dish shape. The EFP also uses a heavier liner, which, when the device is detonated, is formed into a slug or "penetrator." The penetrator, then, is propelled at the target at an extremely high velocity. This difference in the shape and weight of the liner allows the EFP to be deployed from a greater distance than a traditional shaped charge.
Because of its ability to focus the force of an explosive charge, a small EFP containing just a few pounds of high explosive can cause far more damage to an armored vehicle than can a traditional IED — even a large vehicle-borne one — made with far more high-explosive material.
Cheap, Easy and Effective
Because the components required to construct EFPs are simple, such devices can be fabricated inexpensively and out of readily available materials. The well-casing pipe and steel plate, for example, are widely available in almost any region of the world. Moreover, making the EFP casing from these elements requires little skill and only simple machinery, such as a welder, a grinder and a drill.
The copper liner is the sophisticated part of the device, requiring a bit more precision in its fabrication. However, once the proper shape for the liner is determined, either by copying the shape of the liner in a professionally fabricated EFP device or by plain old guesswork, the discs can be fabricated in much the same way that artisans have been making copper bowls for centuries — by hammering them into shape. They also can be made using more modern methods, such as spinning them into a form on a lathe or stamping them with a metal press.
In Iraq, blasting caps and the high-explosive filler required to make such devices are readily available. The Iraqi military cached tons of plastic explosives — the preferred filler — for use in the resistance. In a pinch, however, filler material can be obtained by melting the high explosives out of Iraq's ubiquitous artillery and mortar rounds. Because of the efficiency of EFPs, they only require a few pounds of high-explosive filler to do their deadly work. That means an insurgent bombmaker can make hundreds of EFP devices from the explosive filler required to make one large truck bomb. Being small, EFPs also are easily concealed and harder to detect than larger devices.
The effectiveness and standoff range of an improvised EFP can vary widely, depending on the precision and specifications of the liner and the explosive filler used. Some of the improvised devices clearly are better fabricated than others. Of course, the skill of the operative planting the device also can have a large impact on its effectiveness.
Despite the differences in quality between the various bombmakers producing improvised EFPs, such devices used in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have proven to be highly effective against armored vehicles — even main battle tanks — and they are downright deadly against lighter vehicles such as armored personnel carriers, transport trucks, jeeps and Humvees — even up-armored Humvees.
Given that EFPs are effective, inexpensive and easy to make, it is clearly only a matter of time before they are deployed in other places. This is especially true considering the international nature of the insurgency in Iraq, which STRATFOR has long held to be a militant training ground and laboratory for developing new IED technologies and the tactics to employ them. Afghanistan likely will be one of the first places the EFPs will appear, followed closely by Algeria — though eventually we will see them widely used by jihadists and other militants in many different parts of the world.
There are, of course, military implications to this spread of EFP weapons. They provide lightly armed insurgents the ability to engage armored vehicles from a distance — and thus to avoid exposing themselves to the counterfire that often follows the use of rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank guided missiles. Furthermore, these devices can be daisy-chained for use in a potent ambush against an entire convoy of vehicles.
The use of roadside IEDs already has caused the U.S. military to engage in an IED/counter-IED arms race with the insurgents in Iraq since shortly after the U.S. invasion — and the coming use of EFPs in other regions and conflicts will help further spread this IED arms race to those areas.
Perhaps the most ominous implications of the spread of EFP technology will be in the nonmilitary realm. As demonstrated in the attack against Herrhausen, such devices can easily defeat the armored vehicles used to protect government officials and corporate executives. This will force the protection teams assigned to such potential targets to rely even more heavily on protective intelligence, route analysis, countersurveillance and deception.
It should also be remembered that EFPs have many uses beyond the destruction of vehicles. EFPs fielded by the U.S. military, like those included in the M303 Special Operation Forces Demolition Kit, also can be used in a variety of sabotage applications, such as punching holes in fuel and chemical storage tanks, puncturing pipelines, breaching reinforced concrete walls and destroying other strategic material. Like in the anti-vehicular role, EFPs used for sabotage also can be fired from a standoff distance. The penetrating power and standoff ability of such devices will pose a tremendous challenge for those charged with protecting sensitive civilian infrastructure targets.
The EFP genie is out of the bottle. These devices not only are widely known in the military and militant realms, they even are showing up on television, in shows such as the Discovery Channel's "Future Weapons" program. Those responsible for protecting potential targets — not only in conflict zones — had best take notice because EFPs are coming soon and will be around for a long time to come.