How a Decade of IEDs Has Reshaped Bomb Disposal Tech

The technological toolbox of the military's Explosive Ordnance Disposal units is completely different from ten years ago

When American and coalition troops rolled into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, they quickly began doing exactly what any military playbook said they should do, leveraging their superior firepower and aerial superiority into a string of quick victories. In both engagements, coalition forces quickly hammered conventional military threats into submission and settled into a long role of occupation and rebuilding. That's when the bombs started going off.

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were claiming casualties and leveling a battlefield that once sloped steeply in the coalition's favor. The IED quickly emerged as the insurgency's weapon of choice and the single biggest killer of U.S. troops. The military needed a new set of 21st-century tools to help stop the bleeding and mitigate the IED threat. And that's exactly what it got.

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On its two biggest fronts, the U.S. military and its allies found themselves battling an enemy unbound by normal conventions of war and unrelenting in its creativity. Insurgent fighters were turning just about anything--jerry cans, surplus artillery shells, even pressure cookers and other household appliances--into remotely detonated land mines capable of turning an unarmored Humvee into twisted, charred wreckage. The enemy didn't even have to show up to the battle. By 2007 the "roadside bomb" was responsible for well more than half the coalition deaths in Iraq.

Military conflicts have historically served as effective technology accelerators as the threat of casualties drives military planners to solve problems as quickly as possible. In Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the story is no different. Today, ten years after boots first hit the ground in Afghanistan, the military's technological toolbox has been drastically transformed by the landscape of the last decade, shaped largely by the persistent IED threat. And perhaps no job in the U.S. military has been reshaped by technology quite like Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).

These are the guys who make regular work out of dealing with a grunt's worst nightmare: unseen explosives buried under footpaths and roadways and rubble, waiting to make unsuspecting victims out of a foot patrol or convoy. EOD technicians are first and foremost highly trained problems solvers, but ten years into the long war the technology at their disposal has become sharper, more reliable, and safer to deploy. That's a good thing, because EOD teams in Afghanistan are still getting plenty of work.

Over the past several weeks, that new technological toolbox has been on display via G4 Network's documentary series Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan, in which a camera crew rides shotgun with elite Navy EOD Platoon 342 as it hunts IEDs in Faryab and Kunduz Provinces in Afghanistan. To get a closer look at how the EOD toolbox has changed during the decade of the IED, we asked Chief Petty Officer John Groat (a Navy EOD tech and one of the subjects of the G4 series) and Richard Graves, the technical advisor for Navy EOD Group 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia, to walk us through the gear that Navy EOD techs take to work every day.

Some of it is fairly conventional, some of it extremely high tech, and much of it highly explosive. Click through the gallery to see what Navy EOD teams have learned from ten years of battling IEDs. And check out Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on G4. The season wraps up on December 27th.

The Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle (JERRV)

Everybody needs a way to get to work, and for Navy EOD techs that's the Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle, a 6X6 variant of the Cougar armored fighting vehicle commonly referred to as an MRAP (MRAP actually refers to a whole family of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles designed to be IED-resistant). The JERRV is primarily designed to protect the EOD techs inside, but what distinguishes it from the rest of the MRAPs on the ground in Afghanistan is the tool kit it carries. "When you're talking about taking improvised explosive devices apart, you really don't know what you're coming up against until you get there," says EOD Group 2's technical adviser Richard Graves. "So when you get there you have to have a large toolbox with you." The biggest toolbox EOD has is the JERRV itself. Aside from being equipped with all the bells and whistles of a combat MRAP--a gyro-stabilized long range binocular camera with night vision and IR sensors, armor protection, a blast-dispersing V-shaped hull, a top-mounted heavy weapons turret, etc--the JERRV is purpose designed to carry all the tools an EOD tech might need to execute a mission. Those can include an array of robots, blast-resistant suits, various conventional handheld tools, metal detectors, detonating cord, and a whole suite of explosive charges for blowing IEDs in place. "There are quite a few things in that vehicle that make our job a lot easier, but one is just the sheer size," Platoon 342's Chief Petty Officer Groat says. "In a mounted scenario we can bring two or three robots, sometimes four. The JERRV allots us the room for the amount of explosives we carry, which can be quite a bit. And then all the different variants of tools we might possibly end up having to use on any different call. So the sheer space is a definite benefit." The ability to shrug off powerful explosions doesn't hurt either.Courtesy G4

The Buffalo

Buffaloes are another variant of the MRAP, and strictly speaking it doesn't belong on this list because Navy EOD doesn't operate any Buffaloes. But its colleagues in the Army Corp of Engineers do, and when it comes to actually finding IEDs--performing route clearance for instance, or sweeping a large area for potential explosive threats--the Buffalo often gets the call. The JERRV is designed to get EOD techs to and from dangerous places. The Buffalo's primary task is finding trouble in the first place. "It's a vehicle that's designed to look for IEDs," Groat says. "The JERRV isn't designed for that. It's very impressive and very durable, and the equipment that they utilize on them--which can vary--is state of the art and getting better all the time." At its most rudimentary, that equipment includes huge front-mounted rollers that extend in front of the vehicle to trigger any IED pressure plates before the vehicle itself is directly over the charge. Even better, the Buffaloes can employ ground penetrating radar (GPR) capable of finding disparate densities in the ground. Freshly dug earth--a telltale sign that something's been recently buried--has a different density than hard packed terra, and something like a plastic jug full of liquid explosive is even more different still. The Buffalo is also fitted with a massive robotic arm that can dig into the topsoil in search of a suspected threat, sift through roadside rubble, and otherwise manipulate suspicious objects from a safe distance so engineers don't have to dismount. By leading the way with a Buffalo or two, the engineers can often detect a threat before a convoy is right on top of it. They can then blow the IED in place with an explosive charge of their own or call in EOD techs to render the threat safe.Courtesy Force Protection

Portable Sensor Technologies

When EOD techs dismount in an area where an IED is thought to be hiding, their first line of personal defense is a metal detector. As a technological tool, a metal detector might seem less-than thrilling--it's basically the same technology beachcombers use to look for valuables lost in the sand. But Navy EOD's metal detectors do have a couple of distinguishing characteristics. For one, they're durable, so they can take the day-to-day beating they get coming into and out of the JERRV. They are also keyed into Afghanistan's environment, which tends to be rich in iron ore, Groat says. But all things considered, the ability to detect metal anomalies is governed by the laws of physics, not Moore's law. So that piece of technology can only improve so much. "There's obviously a revolution in electronics and size, but you can't really change physics," Graves says. "You can only discover new ways of sorting through the white noise. The biggest advantage we have is a robust science and technology infrastructure inside and out of this country that helps us incorporate technologies as soon as they are evolved." The lowly metal detector may be on the verge of getting just such an upgrade. While Navy EOD hasn't deployed any yet, next-gen portable detectors are coming online that incorporate both metallic anomaly detection and ground penetrating radar--a handheld version of what the Buffaloes have for detecting density anomalies underground. The Pentagon and the individual service branches still have some evaluating to do, but soon EOD techs could be packing handheld GPR into the field as well.Courtesy G4

The Robots

"As you enter a war where you go on 300-400 calls in a one-year rotation, and of those 98 percent of them are live explosive devices, you start leaning more heavily on your robots, and you start giving user feedback to the people that are making those robots," Graves says. Whereas ten years ago your first responder was a EOD tech in a bomb disposal suit, "the go-to guy right now is a robot." The increased reliance on robots for IED disposal has led to a revolution in robot design that otherwise likely would not have happened. As a result, military procurement officers have a buffet of 'bots to choose from these days, and that variety translates to the battlefield. The TALON (pictured above), made by QinetiQ North America, is the biggest robot Navy EOD stacks in the JERRV and it's arguably the workhorse of the bunch. "For me and what I see in most EOD teams, that's usually the robot we prefer," Groat says. "The reason is it's still portable as far as getting it into and out of the truck, but it's got a lot of stronger capabilities. It's got a more stable platform, the arm is a little bit stronger for digging, for carrying heavier charges, the camera system is easy to manipulate and puts out a good video--it's just the one that most EOD techs seem to like when they're driving a mission because you can just do a little bit more." But by no means is the Talon the only robot at Navy EOD's disposal. Platoon 342 also packs two iRobots: a 510 Packbot and the smaller 310 SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). Groat likes the Packbot for the enhanced visibility it offers. Though smaller than the Talon, its camera is mounted on the robot arm itself rather than on a stationary mast, so the operator can extend it upward something like five feet to look over obstacles or vehicles or drop it low to the ground to peer beneath them. For really tight spaces or dismounted operations, Groat and his team turn to the SUGV, a man-portable unit that can be easily packed in a ruck and humped to wherever it's needed. Its low weight means the SUGV is not great for lifting or digging, but everything about it is compact, from its Xbox controller interface to the tiny camera feed monitor, which clips directly onto a pair of Oakleys for a kind of heads-up display. "It's something we've been needing for a while and it's being used pretty heavily out there," Groat says. EOD robots are used for a variety of tasks, but mostly they are deployed to assess potential threats and examine suspected IED sites so no human lives are put in harm's way. And they can even help neutralize IEDs. While the controls are a bit too clumsy for EOD techs to actually dismantle IEDs piece by piece using just the robot arm on the Talon or Packbot, they aren't too clumsy to lay a TNT or C4 charge over the site of an IED and blast it into a harmless crater.Courtesy G4

The Bomb Disposal Suit

When Groat first joined EOD more than a decade ago, bomb disposal suits were basically composed of a face shield, a helmet, and a big Kevlar jacket. They were heavy, cumbersome, restrictive, and very, very hot. And they still are. But while the suits are still what they have to be--a heavy protective layer that could be the only thing insulating a human body from a fertilizer bomb or artillery shell--they have grown smarter over the years. Ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan have led suit makers to incorporate better in-suit ventilation and active cooling in both helmet and suit. They've also enhanced protection in key organ areas and for the spinal cord, built communications right into the suit, and installed sound enhancing earphones in the helmet to filter out static (you don't want to miss a key communication while disarming an IED). Of course, thanks to robots the bomb disposal suit doesn't have to come out so often. But that doesn't mean EOD techs don't pack it--and prepare to use it--on any given day.Courtesy G4

The Explosives Toolbox

You thought being an EOD tech was all about preventing explosions? When possible--when the risk of collateral damage is low and the risk to human life nil--EOD would rather detonate an IED in place than dig it up and dismantle it by hand. That means sending an explosive package downrange to detonate both itself and the IED in one magnificent tag-team explosion. But it also means EOD techs have to know just as much about blowing stuff up as they do about not blowing stuff up. Even then, it's not just about making something explode. Depending on the threat, an EOD team may want an explosion that burrows downward or explodes with more of a sharp cutting force than a blunt one. Sometimes they want to blow an IED completely; other times, they may want to preserve some of the original IED to collect as evidence (a big part of the EOD job is learning about the enemy and evolving tactics as the enemy evolves his). For all that, Groat says, the JERRV rolls around with a pretty good store of explosives of its own on board: C4 explosive, one-pound blocks of TNT, Detasheet (a rubberized explosive formed into paper-like sheets that can be stacked, cut to size, wrapped around things, etc.), det cord (a tube coated with PETN on the inside, used to detonate charges remotely without electricity), and various shape charges, timed fuses, and detonators. None of these are particularly new technologies of course, as blowing things up isn't exactly new. But the EOD explosives toolbox isn't so much about technological innovation as it is tactical innovation. "The EOD tech is a problem solver," Graves reiterates. "He's taught all types of explosives: military, homemade, etc. They are taught this both so they know what they have to mitigate and so they can use them as tools." EOD techs are always learning from both their own experience and their adversaries' handiwork, because on a battlefield that's always shifting the ability to be nimble in your thinking and skills is an asset. Which brings us to the most important Navy EOD tool of all . . .Courtesy G4

EOD Creativity

"Away from technology, a lot of the tools we use are just old-school stuff," Groat (above, in back) says. "A piece of rope or pliers. Fiberglass or a piece of non-ferrous metal for a probe. Everyday stuff off the shelf may help us complete the mission. It's not all technology. It's EOD creativity that helps us do our job out there." In other words, there's no technological substitute for know-how, a cool head, and a heaping dose of true grit. There are the tools you can buy and the tools you can't, and ideally you want a healthy blend of the two riding alongside each other in the JERRV. "The biggest tool we have is the training that we get, but the technology that's coming out is helping team leaders and sailors to do our job better," Groat says. "In my opinion there's no better trained EOD contingent in the world than the U.S. military's EOD teams."Courtesy G4