Q&A: Capt. Steven Beall, Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal

By Jan Tegler

Defense Dept. photo

Capt. Steven Beall has been commander of the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal since August 2021. Located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, the school conducts common basic training for Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps EOD technicians who graduate from the school at the apprentice level.

Beall spoke with Jan Tegler via phone about the challenges of keeping the school’s curriculum current as technology evolves. The article has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Explosive ordnance disposal is an inherently risky mission. How do candidate EOD technicians come to Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and is the school facing any challenges in recruiting enough students to satisfy requirements?

A. We are a joint-like school, meaning that we get initial accession Air Force, Army and Navy personnel [from boot camp] through their respective pipelines. Marine Corps personnel are not initial accession. They have a requirement to be E-5 or E-6 before they’re able to come to the program.

Currently the school is 143 training days. Those training days [apply to] all four branches of service. When that is completed, the Navy will continue on for an additional 63 training days. That is so that they can pick up the underwater side.

We start a new class here every four days with both enlisted and officers mixed together in the same class. We have about an 80/20 split on that. So, 80 percent will be initial accession regardless of branch of service. About 20 percent have fleet experience.

Right now, we’re programmed at just shy of 1,100 quotas per year — 1,096, I think. In terms of our flow through the school, we are on task to meet all of our quota requirements for this fiscal year. We’re on the receiving end of manpower. The respective services make their determination on throughput. From a schoolhouse [perspective] we program in those requests, and we execute training for those that walk through our front door.

Q. New technologies, including directed energy, multi-domain drones and expanded use of robotics paired with artificial intelligence and machine learning are in-service or in prototype phases currently. How does the school keep abreast of developing technologies relevant to EOD?

A. We have several mechanisms in place that support that. The EOD Program Board has representation from all four branches of service and really kind of keeps us all communicating and working across one another’s technology and training and where we’re driving the community to the future.

Supporting those pieces, you have two separate groups that convene. You have the Military Technical Acceptance Board, commonly referred to as the MTAB. They focus on all of our technology. Then you have the Technical Training Acceptance Board, which really looks just at training. There’s a representative from each branch of service that sits on those boards.

That’s what keeps the EOD community cross-talking. That’s that sharing opportunity as we all look through the problems from a different lens. How do we bring those pieces together?

Those two groups also communicate on a routine basis to talk about, ‘Hey, here’s my training deficiency based on this emerging threat, and I need a technology solution to help me defeat that threat.’ Those groups are in constant communication to work through those pieces.

Some problems are really long term, and the technology side will work an issue and work an issue. That training piece on what it’s going to look like is why we get way ahead on that. Is this [technology] relevant and is this the right place to teach it?

That’s also a question that gets asked. Is Naval School EOD at the apprentice level the appropriate place to deliver the training? We have training sites outside of the school that can also deliver training.

Q. Where do instructors come from? And do they help keep the school’s curriculum current by bringing knowledge of new ideas or EOD technology with them?

A. Our instructors are from all four branches. Instructors are determined by how many quotas the individual services request. If the Army determines that they want 350 quotas, there’s a formula and they will provide X-number of instructors. We have a good mix of instructors here based on those quota requirements all coming from operational units. They’ve had the opportunity to operate in the field. They bring that operational experience back here. The experience and their ability to talk to students and teach them how it applies in real life transcends some of the learning hard spots. Each branch here has a service commander and they’re also a wealth of knowledge, all O-5s. They provide guidance and oversight to their staffs and students.

Are they a source of information on new technologies and new ideas? Absolutely, we hold working groups here amongst the instructors to coordinate things like that. How do we improve our training processes and what have they seen in the operational environment?

Q. How are emerging technologies integrated into the school’s curriculum?

A. We do a continual training relevance review on the curriculum. As new technology arrives, the first thing we want to do is get our instructors trained on what’s emerging. They will go through that process and then we’ll see what the end state looks like.

Through that training relevance review process, we’ll begin to adjust the curriculum so that we can make changes to align with new technology and make sure our instructors are up to speed on what we’re going to be adding to the curriculum as a tool and then change the curriculum to support that flow and that testing. We develop a plan to evaluate if we’re imparting the right capabilities to the students for utilizing a new tool.

The schoolhouse always focuses on the basics first. We do that in spite of our technology.

As new technology is fielded, we plan way ahead because the curriculum changes slowly to make sure we don’t make mass rudder movements in what we do. We interlock ourselves with the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division, with what’s coming online in industry.

We lean into that generally about two years out to get it in place. So, while it’s still in production we’re already having conversations about how we’re going to implement it [in the curriculum].

Q. What are some of the new technologies that have entered the school’s curriculum recently?

A. Probably the most recent thing we implemented here was the use of our [unmanned aerial vehicles]. We put the UAVs in our advanced training site that’s here. We are authorized to fly and operate them and have incorporated that into a tool. We’re still incorporating our tactics, techniques and procedures on how we’re going to employ that.

Students leave the school as an apprentice. By the time they become a journeyman they will come back for advanced training, and they will get the opportunity to actually use the drones.

One of our newest technologies that applies to our core training, specifically to the Navy, would be our underwater systems that we are beginning to incorporate. Those are long lead times as we add those into the curriculum. Sometimes we look at adding days to our curriculum to support that.

Q. Even as technology advances, there seems to be a greater demand for creativity and improvisation from EOD technicians today to meet new threats. How does the instruction reflect this?

A. The key piece for an EOD technician regardless of branch of service is critical thinking so that they can holistically look at a situation and evaluate risk. But they also have to project out as they kind of play the tape through. If I do this, this is what will happen.

In terms of technology and how we look down the road, we look at what our potential threats are and we’re playing that tape through. How does that look? It’s critical thinking that makes EOD techs successful.

We start with a crawl, walk, run approach to [training] so that we can give students the building blocks. They will start putting the different divisions of training they go through together as they go through ground ordnance and continue to grow into air ordnance. By the time they get to [improvised explosive devices] that critical thinking is switched on.

When you look at a state-sponsored ground or air ordnance item, once you can figure out what it is, it’s kind of a methodical approach. When you start getting into improvised explosive devices you really start to expand your way of looking at a problem and we see [students] have that “ah ha” moment.

Q. Does the school also emphasize low technology solutions or past methods that may become relevant again in a peer conflict?

A. That is truly the nail on the head. When I talked about the basic principles of how we defeat an explosive device, that always applies. The technology is just a tool. The basic mechanical tools that they learn, and their basic understanding is fundamental to using the latest technology.

We talk about directed energy sources for runway clearance. All of those things are just tools in the bag. That critical thinking EOD techs learn is that they will evaluate the whole environment, that threat assessment and decide which tool is appropriate for the problem they can see at that moment.

Q. What is your biggest challenge leading the school right now?

A. We recruit very talented, very well-educated individuals. As we’ve evolved over time, the students see life through different lenses. We’ve found that we have to meet them where they’re at in terms of how they digest information, how they’re able to take it on and teach them to think critically about an EOD problem. Our instructors adapt to that. ND

Topics: Emerging Technologies

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