Bomb Squads Need the Best Tools Available
Lt. Col. Percy “Wes” Rhone at a recent conference said Army explosive ordnance disposal personnel are currently using 13-year-old bomb suits.
The deputy chief of the Army EOD directorate lamented the fact that a typical acquisition program could take up to seven years, meaning by the time Army bomb technicians have new suits, the current generation will be 20 years old.
In the moments after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, bomb squad personnel were forced to take pocketknives and slit open dozens of backpacks abandoned on the sidewalks by those who fled to make sure there were no secondary bombs. They did this without any personal protection.
Bomb squads — both military and civilian — deserve and need the very best technologies the nation can offer them.
There are two reasons: going face to face with a bomb is dangerous work and takes courage. Those who choose to go into this profession should have the best protection available.
Second, bombs have been for more than a century, continue to be, and will be for the foreseeable future, a terrorist’s go-to weapon. From pipe bombs to car bombs, they are relatively easy to procure and the results can be deadly and devastating.
Yet teams on the ground that are charged with disposing of bombs seem to get the short shrift when it comes to technology.
Military EOD personnel have been waiting eight years for new bomb disposal robots, as a September National Defense article “Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robot Program at Risk of Collapse” spelled out.
Yet there have been no congressional hearings on this program and no Government Accountability office reports. It didn’t make it into the 2015 GAO’s annual assessment of selected weapons acquisition programs report.
Funding-wise, it’s small potatoes in the Pentagon. It’s technology that serves some 6,000 personnel. And yet everyone knows roadside bombs nearly brought the U.S. military to its knees in Iraq. The scourge was so bad the Defense Department created the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization to bring all its efforts under one roof and it was funded accordingly.
Now that there are few troops in the field, JIEDDO is no more. It has been replaced by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency. The glass is either half empty or half full when it comes to this development. The organization does live on — an acknowledgment that IEDs are here to stay — although it will have to continue its mission with a sharply reduced budget.
Domestically, the U.S. government’s fight against bombs is spread out over several departments, none of which are high-profile offices or agencies. The FBI, and Departments of Homeland Security and Justice all have roles. DHS’ office of bombing prevention runs the TRIPwire program, a clearinghouse for daily information on bomb threats. The FBI leads the national explosives task force, which “supports operational decisions by those responsible for preventing terrorist or criminal use of explosives.” Much of these organizations’ time is devoted to detecting bombers or networks before they hatch their plots. That is important work and often successful, but lone wolves and networks will slip through.
Neither of these two main domestic programs have a laboratory or mission to develop technologies to detect, dispose of bombs or prevent them from exploding.
The Transportation Security Administration does run a lab to keep bombs off airplanes and trains.
As far as introducing up-to-date technologies for bomb squads, there are two organizations involved: DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate’s explosives division funds the development of counter-IED technology. The Defense Department runs the combating terrorism technical support office.
These agencies fund vendors, universities and laboratories to develop counter-IED technologies, but do little to actually put what they paid for into the hands of those who need it. It’s up to researchers to market and sell what they develop.
Hello Valley of Death: the place where good ideas developed in labs die without ever making it to market. The taxpayers foot the bill to develop the tools for EOD teams, but if the bomb squads can’t afford to buy them, the new tools go nowhere. It’s a deeply flawed system. It’s an old problem when it comes to the domestic law enforcement market. If a company sells one bomb disposal robot to one bomb squad, then it has made only one sale. There are about 468 bomb squads in the United States that go on about 34,000 calls per year, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the CTTSO.
President Obama signed a “Countering Improvised Explosive Devices” presidential directive in February 2013. It acknowledged the scourge of IEDs and their continued use, but the four-page document only contains two mentions of technology’s future role. Counter-IED technology will be developed and coordinated and prioritized, but it doesn’t say by whom. And where is the funding to back this up?
The military is the biggest customer for these technologies, but as the demise of JIEDDO shows, the Defense Department is taking its eye off the ball in this regard. The organization had a budget of about $3.5 billion. JIDA will have a base budget of $144 million. Its leaders say they will partner with other agencies to help them fund new technologies. But one wonders: where are the other organizations that have deep pockets?
This is a strategic pause the Defense Department should be taking advantage of to help it get ahead of the roadside bomb problem before it returns. Meanwhile, leaders at the office of the secretary of defense need to crack the whip and make sure EOD units have the best and most up-to-date technology.
Domestically, there should be one agency on par with DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to develop and deploy counter-IED technologies.
Those on the frontlines combating the IED scourge deserve the government’s best effort.
Fully autonomous bomb robots, sniffers that work as well as a dog’s nose and a laser that can determine if a bag contains explosives from standoff distances would all be good starts.