The deployment by insurgents and terrorists of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), in particular roadside IEDs, is the operational scourge of our time. They are used in vast numbers to maim and kill civilians and enemy forces, where they are highly effective at slowing troop movements.
IEDs hidden along roads or in buildings are disguised as construction material, cement blocks, in anything from empty drinks cans to animal carcasses. Buried IEDs are often laid in ‘daisy chain’ configurations – a string of IEDs wired together so that a single signal will detonate all the munitions at the same time, or in sequence. Widely spread webs of IEDs, connected to one trigger wire, produce an explosive force multiplier against advancing forces.
Enhanced fragmentation such as ball bearings is regularly used in IEDs deployed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and many other terrorist groups. When the devices are triggered, the blast propels them like bullets to wreck life and limb. Long-lasting injuries such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are all too prevalent.
Stand-off saves lives
So how do we protect the troops and bomb technicians who, in many countries, risk their lives to protect civilians and comrades from the scourge of IEDs? Advancing detection and dismantlement technologies and equipment provide a stand-off distance from the IED to protect the EOD (explosives ordnance disposal) technician: UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles – robots) and robotics, sensors, X-ray systems, jamming systems, sensors and disruptors, and ground penetrating radar carried on blast-resistant vehicles. In both military and civilian arenas many bombs are set off from a distance rather than attempts at dismantlement. Mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles have been through several phases of evolution and varying levels of success in affording protection. A new generation of MRAPs has a V-shaped undercarriage, which has helped to some degree to deflect blast impact. Enhanced seating designs also add protection.
PPE for bomb techs
Of ultimate importance is personal protection. The most commonly used EOD PPE in military operations, the advanced bomb suit (ABS), is made with layered low-weight, high-strength materials such as Nomex, Kevlar, foams and multiple plastic composites to provide maximum protection. Blast panels are fitted on the outside of the suit to help protect the neck, arms, upper torso and legs from fragments and other high-speed projectiles flying as fast as 1,667 metres per second. Rigid composite ballistic panels offer reinforced protection to the chest, lower abdomen and groin and a spine protector and raised supportive neck collar overlaps the helmet may help to curb the blast effect. Variations depend on weather conditions and the theatre of operation.
New designs of the bomb suit aim to make it lighter while affording maximum blast protection; the standard suit weighs more than 35 kg. An example is the next-generation Med-Eng EOD-10 bomb suit, which has lighter and more agile protective layers to reduce the overall physiological burden and provide greater mobility and dexterity. The Med-Eng BCS 4 cooling system reduces the debilitating effects of heat on the body and redesigned jacket and trousers reduce weight and fatigue along with the EOD 10 helmet, to improve situational awareness, protection and fit. This integrates a Voice Command system to provide enhanced warning and confirmation.
What if troops and techs are not equipped with protective gear, stand-off detection, and training? Despite examples of great heroism and an infusion of equipment and training, Afghan and Iraqi soldiers still lack robots and protective suits and resort to “jerry-rigged tactics” to locate and defuse IEDs. In July 2013 an Afghan bomb tech risked his life to defuse a suicide vest after a failed bombing in Jalalabad. He managed to disarm the would-be bomber – who was hog-tied to prevent him from blowing the device up and was wearing an ANA uniform – with just a wire-cutter.
In February 2012 a bomb squad officer approached a suspect plastic bag in the Nigerian city of Kaduna. Wearing no protective gear, he looked inside the bag, which exploded, killing him. His death could have been prevented through better training. Consequently, the Africa Defence Forum issued the following basic precautions to soldiers confronting the plague of IEDs deployed by Boko Haram:
Soldiers in high-risk areas should wear flak jackets and helmets at all times. As well as being taught first aid, especially in basic treatment of shock, they need to know how injuries are caused by the pressure wave of the primary blast, the multiple types of wounds caused by the secondary blast, and injuries resulting from being thrown by the blast.
Vehicles employed in high-risk areas should be equipped with bags of fine sand on their floors as protection. Any material larger than fine sand becomes a missile in the event of an explosion. Passengers in armoured vehicles should ride on top, rather than inside (although this may render them vulnerable to snipers). Hatches on armoured vehicles should be left cracked open, with the latch pin still in place, to permit the dispersion of the concussion of an IED explosion.
A footpath through an otherwise difficult-to-negotiate street or field is an obvious place for IEDs; footprints may end abruptly and other signs are disturbed soil or sand, isolated boxes along a trail, abandoned vehicles and military equipment, and street trash that include wires, strings, and bits of steel. When occupying an empty building, it should be assumed that the building has been rigged with IEDs. This clearly also applies to the hundreds of booby-trapped devices encountered by Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting to retake ISIS-held territory.