Combat Experience of Bomb-Disposal Teams Should Be Codified

By Jeffrey Trumbore
The last 12 years of conflict have firmly established the roles of explosive ordnance disposal teams in supporting joint operations. EOD has proven to be critical during irregular and counterinsurgency warfare, and was used extensively to counter improvised explosive devices and remove unexploded bombs, known as “explosive remnants of war,” in EOD lingo.

Much of EOD’s success in these complex battlefields came from learning on the fly and not from the application of existing doctrine. As the joint force faces complex conflicts in the future, EOD’s challenge is to identify an appropriate way to provide a solid foundation for preserving these skills and to provide commanders with the guidance required to effectively leverage these capabilities. That challenge can be met by writing doctrine.

U.S. Central Command’s IED threat was met by the joint explosive ordnance disposal force  — the one military organization that had tracked the threat, understood the technology and trained to counter homemade bombs before Sept. 11, 2001.

It found ways to exploit intelligence recovered from IEDs and related to those charged with targeting insurgent and bomb-making cells. It created post-IED blast procedures to collect this technical and forensic evidence. It developed techniques to render IEDs safe, and technologies to defeat the bombs and protect service members. It also developed tactics to remove unexploded bombs as a source of enemy explosives.

While each of the solutions had significant tactical effects on efforts to defeat insurgents, they also had strategic-level impacts. Over time, the growing importance and complexity of the operations resulted in the establishment of counter–IED task forces — one each in Iraq and Afghanistan — led by explosive ordnance disposal officers.

Clearly, joint EOD’s experience had evolved into a broad range of capabilities that directly affected the success of operations. These capabilities need to be fully captured in doctrine. An April Government Accountability Office report, “Explosive Ordnance Disposal: DoD Needs Better Resource Planning and Joint Guidance to Manage the Capability” came to the same conclusion.

Codifying joint capabilities in the doctrine joint publication set is critical to the future of the EOD force. As noted in the GAO report, “The services are disadvantaged with respect to EOD capabilities, knowledge and use because DoD has not developed joint doctrine in the form of a joint publication.”

The rationale for this is well founded. Terrorists and insurgents will continue to use homemade bombs, and explosive remnants will continue to be a major or potential source of supply in many unstable regions of the world.

Additionally, the potential for state and non-state actors to use or proliferate weapons of mass destruction is a continuing concern for national leaders. Joint EOD has a critical role in improvised bomb, explosive remnant and WMD-related missions, as well as their traditional unexploded ordnance tasks and the underwater mine countermeasures mission specific to Navy teams. These roles and associated capabilities need to be fully captured in joint and service doctrine.

Why is doctrine documentation important? Joint doctrine is the foundation for a joint training system. Doctrine supports the training continuum and helps to justify the resources required to maintain a trained and ready force. Doctrine forms the basis for joint training in the schoolhouses, and provides authoritative guidance to combatant and joint task force commanders with regard to planning and conducting joint exercises and subsequent joint operations in a battlezone.

Additionally, joint doctrine directly influences the development of each service’s own doctrine, which must track with the principles and guidance provided in the joint publication. Current doctrine does not adequately address the range of explosive ordnance disposal capabilities or employment opportunities in support of a joint force.

A combatant or joint task force commander’s staff has one consolidated reference source for joint service explosive ordnance disposal capabilities, a publication called the EOD Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, which is dated September 2011. It is a good document with solid information on all four service explosive ordnance disposal organizations. However, as the GAO report notes, the document is not well known or used. Military planners simply do not have the doctrinal resources needed to understand the full range of capabilities that EOD brings to the joint force and how to plan for and employ those skills.

The GAO report’s finding verifies the need to better codify explosive ordnance disposal capabilities in doctrine. A starting point would be to determine answers to the following questions: Why is the EOD Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques and Procedures not used? What are all the existing references to EOD in joint doctrine?

Is explosive ordnance disposal referenced in the primary joint publications used for planning operations that would logically include its missions?

Based on the answers to these questions, in what joint publications do links to explosive ordnance disposal activities need to be included or updated?  Is a stand-alone explosive ordnance disposal joint publication also required?

Identifying the organizations responsible for joint EOD doctrine development is imperative. Now is the time, when the force is at the height of its visibility with polished new capabilities in hand, to develop the basis of the doctrine that will lay the foundation for the future.  The envisioned effort will not require a great number of personnel to execute, but it may require a long-term, sustained effort to influence the normal joint publication set five year review and revision cycle.

Regardless of the action taken by the appropriate and responsible joint EOD proponent or board, one thing is certain: Bomb disposal units have become recognized for their importance in a range of missions. The forces punched well above their weight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this significant capability needs to be captured in doctrine.

The longer the doctrine review and development process is delayed, the higher the risk that it will never be properly executed, and “learning on the fly” will be repeated with regard to joint EOD force employment.

Sadly, many lives were lost in Iraq and Afghanistan as we were on this learning curve. No one wants to see that repeated, so taking this small step to address joint doctrine is just one of many things that needs to be codified in relation to the nation’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Trumbore is an associate with R3 Strategic Support Group. He retired from the Navy in 2010 after more than 34 years of service as a special operations officer and master explosive ordnance disposal technician. He can be reached at

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices

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