The economics of bombs

As the bombs get more difficult to construct or operate, the costs rise. Bombs activated with a remote detonator like a cellphone cost a mere $345 and accounted for a surprisingly small — 12.6 percent — of attacks, perhaps owing to the U.S.’ hard-won ability to jam the detonator signal. (One would imagine the major cost component is the cellphone.) For insurgents to turn a car into a bomb or convince someone to kill himself during a detonation — or both — the cost shoots up into the thousands: $10,032 for a suicide bomber; $15,320 for a car bomb; nearly 19 grand to drive a car bomb. All together, those relatively expensive attack methods accounted for fewer than six percent of bomb attacks in 2009.

Most of those bombs have gotten cheaper to produce. In 2006, victim-operated IEDs cost an average of $1,125. Command-wire bombs were $1,266. Remote detonation bombs? The same. And as the costs dropped, victim-operated and command-wire detonated bombs skyrocketed. Back in 2006, they accounted for merely 21.3 percent and a piddling 1.9 percent of all bomb attacks, respectively.

But the sophisticated bombs have gotten more expensive. Car bombs cost $1,675 on average in 2006 — which seems absurdly low, given the cost of one involves acquiring and then tricking out a car. And the going rate on suicide bombers appears to have risen, from $5,966 in 2006 to nearly double that in 2009. Accordingly, both accounted for over 16 percent of IED attacks in ‘06. And JIEDDO says it has preliminary reporting indicating that suicide bombers cost $30,000 as of January.

Here is more and for the pointer I thank David Curran.


I am really curious as to how they found those numbers - do raided insurgent outposts leave accounting books behind? Or is the US informant network really great?

Actually the figures are compiled and published quarterly in the Journal of the American Terrorist Society.

"'Tricking out a car'? Is this from Wired?"

what is the rate of return on these cheapo bombs? if your 245 dollar bomb is easily dug up, or easily defeated, then that is 245$ total loss. Plus now your enemy knows alittle bit more about you.(how long can you keep laying these bombs out before they find out and unceremoniously call an air strike on you, or capture you?)

So how many bombs can you reasonably expect to set before being caught/killed?

What is the rate of return (american casualties per $) for each type of bomb?

What kind of quota would you have to meet to satisfy your terrorist-org bureaucracy?

Given a budget of say 100,000$ what is the optimal mix of bombs to purchase to inflict maximum rate of return?

even a bomb easily dug up is a terrific weapon. at least, it occupies the bomb squad for a while. at most, it provides an exceptional opportunity to ambush. or it distracts personelle to the bomb location whilst you do ill in a second location elsewhere.
And what it REALLY does (to paraphrase the vietcong on their landmine doctrine) is to create an anger in the opfor. The average GI, returning to de-mine site after de-mine site, always fearing bomb attacks, eventually grows to hate ALL the inhabitants of a country. A general feeling of anger and unwellness. In this climate, they are more likely to massacre/political faux pas/do untowards activities etc. all of which drive the (generally a-political) natives against them and into your rebel group/insurgency/army etc.

Isn't this good news? If the people in Iraq and Afghanistan now demand twice as much money to martyr themselves it shows either a higher value on life or a lower value on killing soldiers. If that trend keeps going long enough it won't matter how much a phone-operated bomb costs, as no one in Iraq or Afganistan will support the insurgents.

As Hedy Lamarr could tell you, a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum transmitter and receiver are all that is needed to frustrate jamming. A jammer has to jam a particular frequency, jam all frequencies, or detect the spread-spectrum code to jam effectively.

If a jammer doesn't know the frequency, it would have to jam all frequencies--impossible because of the power limitations. So a jammer really has to decode the jamming encryption, which is almost impossible under laboratory conditions but truly impossible in fact, since the jammer can't detect even the existence of a spread-spectrum detonation signal amid the noise in the spectrum, let alone the rate of the hopping, etc.

One would imagine the major cost component is the cellphone

At $345 a pop, with the only requirement for the phone being that it function and ring when you call it, not so much, Wired.

It ain't like they're buying new top-end smartphones to blow up.

If "Marginal Revolution" is going to analyze the economics of bombs it seems to me that marginal utility should be used.

What is the marginal utility of a bomb, either remote or suicide?

What is the utility gained or lost from the last unit consumption of a bomb? Let's see: One IED exploded. One U.S. soldier killed. The cost of an IED is $1200. If we say the value of one U.S. soldier (as an earlier blog entry says "Markets in Everything,") is, roughly $250,000, then the marginal utility of an IED is almost infinite. It would take 100x IED consumption before the utility is even approached.

I don't think you want to get into the economic (at least modern economic) analysis of bombs.

allan, leaving aside considerations like "how many bombs can a bombmaker make before he blows himself up" and kill ratios and so forth, you also have to consider that 250K is a fairly small amount of the trillions the US is obviously prepared to waste, and that bomb may be a higher percentage of the johadi's assets.

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