The multiple-headed Hydra that is the improvised explosive device (IED) has long been theweapon of choice of the terrorist and insurgent, not only against civilians but as a prime obstacle for advancing troops on the battlefield. In the Vietnam War – the first major example of asymmetric warfare in our time – IEDs caused a third of all US casualties. Large mines such as the ‘Bouncing Betty’ were placed by Viet Cong insurgents who dug into the side of the supporting berm to prevent the disruption of the road from being seen from approaching vehicles. They were exploded by remote control and blew up armoured and civilian vehicles. Mines dug into trains were set off by booby-trap trip wires.
In this century, Afghanistan and Iraq became ‘template’ battlefields. In Afghanistan, thousands of pressure-plate IEDs were deployed by the Taliban, killing and injuring hundreds of Coalition troops, and are now resurgent. Specialist units and regular troops carrying out explosives ordnance disposal (EOD) have had to adapt to the multiple forms of the IED used as an area denial weapon – the ‘artillery of the 21st century’ – and the highly adaptable enemy’s multiple M.O.
Iraq: template battlefield
Iraq has seen an invasion, insurgency and subsequent rule by terror group Daesh, making it a template battlefield – which in modern conflicts is fought out in beleaguered city streets. Daesh has buried bombs to stall operations by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to push into occupied cities, where the battle rages from house to house. IEDs found outside Mosul had containers made from oil pipeline with thick metal cylinders cut and welded with precision and tightly packed explosives. Many have machined firing pins and commercially derived fuses, based on purloined Iraqi insurgency designs. Project Manager UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq, Pehr Lodhammar said: “I personally have never seen anything like Iraq when it comes to the density of contamination, and the types of different IED.”
Suicide vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) have been aimed atsecurity forces on the ground. Mechanical diggers are booby-trapped and multiple Humvees used for suicide bombings. Oxygen bottles are filled with TNT and used against tanks, armoured vehicles, and mine sweepers.
Applying EOD equipment
Render-safe procedures (RSPs) depend on the environment and IED diagnostics: types of explosive and fillers; timers; booby-trap mechanisms; whether static or in culverts; vehicle-borne, suicide; or in a military or civilian location. Speedy decisions have to be made when or when not to disrupt a device. Many are blown in place.
UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) – robots – have become invaluable to enable EOD operatives to carry out their dangerous work remotely. This is important where IEDs threaten civilians, as the ‘battlefield’ often includes them as targets. It should be noted that the attachable fitments and sensors for robots vary from model to model and that new designs are often based on recommendations from the practitioners.
We are the robots
Among the many advanced UGVs in service is Reacher, made by Ramda in the Irish Republic. Reacher’s arm has 6° of freedom, a sliding turret and a low profile arm enables the arm to be manipulated into many positions including over-obstacle, below ground and under-vehicle. The Reacher’s low profile wrist has embedded LED spotlights and an embedded gripper camera.
It carries the Remote Disruptor Platform (RDP) within its chassis to an incident and can deploy it when observation or disruptor capabilities are needed in low-clearance situations. The RDP can also be used to position X-ray sources such as the XRS-200/300, leaving the robot free to position the X-ray panel. While out on a mission without an RDP the robotic arm can interchange its tools with those available in the powered cargo bay drawer at the front of the robot.
A recently launched UGV is the Transportable Interoperable Ground Robot (TIGR) from Israeli firm Roboteam. TIGR is a two-man carried UGV with a modular design, which allows for add-ons, sensors and future technology integration.
Hailed as highly mobile and capable of operating in any terrain and in all weathers, TIGR has “best-in-class” day and night vision and six HD video cameras. A tactical five-degree-of-freedom manipulator provides operators with high dexterity for complex EOD missions, CBRN survey operations, hazardous material incident response, and subterranean and culvert inspection – any or all of which can be found on today’s battlefield.
Convoys also carry ECM (electronic countermeasures – jamming systems) to block signals being transmitted by the triggerman to a radio controlled IED. An emergent threat is terrorist drones – to drop explosive payloads and to guide a SVBIED onto its target. Omnidirectional antenna on a counter-IED jammer such as Kirintec’s Sky Net range can break the video and control links of a drone at distances exceeding standard ‘detect’ ranges.
Beyond new technology
Dealing with IEDs in place also still involves finding them through dangerous foot patrols using handheld tools such as mine detectors and metal wire cutters from hardware stores, and laser pointers to scan for tripwires. EOD teams based at FOBs have to move throughout their area of operations at a moment’s notice. IEDs with non-metallic components and electronic trigger mechanisms are harder to detect.
Also, the rush to deploy new technologies for operational use means designs may be compromised. In rugged terrain weight of equipment is an issue where slowing down a convoy increases its vulnerability to attack.
Training national squads
Around 645,000 Iraqi security forces have received basic training, some by US forces at the main centre at Iraqi Bismyiah training facility near Baghdad, where complex urban and rural scenarios are set up to train running squads, platoons and companies. From a few weeks of pre-deployment schooling focused on post-blast analysis and electronics, counter-IED lessons ten years on have become immersive exercises that pit students against one another on both sides, in advanced games of cat-and-mouse. This remains the eternal model of counter-insurgency operations and to beat the terrorists both on and off what today constitutes ‘the battlefield’. In countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the skills and bravery of these teams will be tested for many years to come.