Explosive Ordinance Disposal and the Containment of the Blast
Last Updated: 1/11/2018 10:43 a.m.
Explosive devices can be found all over the world, many of them in places where no one would think to find them. From the random leftover explosives of more than a century's worth of wars to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) put in place by terrorist organizations the world over, the risks to innocent people from explosive devices are much greater than we think.
Indeed, many unexploded munitions are found buried under the ground where battlefields have long since fallen silent and have been restored to peaceful utilization. A number of construction sites in Europe have uncovered very large bombs dropped by planes in World War II and smaller ones fired from cannons in the trenches of World War I.
Even seemingly innocuous cannonballs from the U.S. Civil War have exploded on unsuspecting relic collectors in the last decade. Minefields left over from wars in Asia and Africa — along with unexploded munitions from the last century of warfare — have been a significant problem, causing innumerable deaths and dismemberments in many nations across those continents.
And in the last 40 to 50 years, various extremist groups have used IEDs with ever-advancing technology to terrorize civilians and governments alike across the world, from the war-ravaged cities of Afghanistan to the embattled areas of Northern Ireland to the relatively peaceful streets of Manhattan.
IEDs are becoming more common, and civilians are urged to be more vigilant in the detection of suspicious objects or containers. From simple pipe bombs and pressure cooker bombs to complex devices made with military grade plastic explosives, it can be very hazardous to pick up baggage that's been left behind.
Fortunately, the science and technology of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), along with blast protection containment, has been advancing as well. Modern techniques used to disrupt and disarm explosive devices have saved countless lives as the cat-and-mouse game between the designers of explosives and those charged with disarming them continues.
A Brief History of EOD
Although there were preliminary developments in bomb disposal in 1870s London and 1900s New York City, EOD got its real start in the trenches of WWI. The rapid, mass production of ammunition led to many duds that were fired from cannons into the battlefield. They were especially dangerous in the trenches, and both sides designated ordinance personnel to disarm them.
Toward the end of the war, the Germans began using ordinance with delayed fuses to help create havoc on the enemy line when they eventually exploded. Soldiers in the allied trenches had difficulty distinguishing between the duds and the delayed fuses, often until it was too late. These advancements in explosive devices also created opportunities to advance the EOD techniques used to diffuse them.
When WWII started, the Germans had made many advances in their delayed fuse ordinance that they used to a great extent in their bombing raids over Britain. Because of this, the British army became more adept at diffusing these devices before they could explode and cause further damage and civilian losses. This was the beginning of modern EOD.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military started to train servicemen in the disposal of explosives, and they modeled the new American EOD after their British counterparts. Modern military EOD techniques are classified top secret to prevent their dissemination to potential enemy bomb-makers or to any of the various extremist organizations around the world.
From the 1970s forward, EOD methods have advanced a great deal. The development of armored bomb suits and remote control vehicles has saved the lives of countless EOD technicians. These methods and equipment have been used to disable the leftover ordinance from the wars of the past and IEDs placed by extremist organizations today, often preventing a catastrophic explosion.
They've also made a significant difference in the wars over the same stretch of time as IEDs — placed on the side of roads or borne in a vehicle or on the person of a suicide bomber — have been one of the primary methods of ambush and destruction used by the enemies of U.S. forces and NATO in the ongoing Global War on Terror.
EOD has come to be the term to label military explosives disposal teams, and bomb squad is the primary term to label law enforcement teams. However, because of the cost of training and equipment, most civil law enforcement services rely on the support of the military's IED teams.
Although entertainment media may present it differently, EOD specialists don't cut many wires — unless, of course they find a claymore mine that's been put in place with a trip wire as a booby trap. Ideally, they use modern methods created by years of technological advances to stay as far away from the explosive device as possible.
Remote Control Vehicles (RCVs)
RCVs are used whenever they can be. For nearly 50 years, they have allowed technicians to work on explosive devices from a relatively safe distance. When an explosive device can't be safely neutralized without detonating, hopefully an RCV is being used by the technician, rather than the technician working directly with the device.
Remote control vehicles have saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives of EOD specialists, as they've worked to save countless innocents. They carry the following benefits:
- They are small enough to fit through doors.
- Rugged tires or tracks allow them to negotiate a variety of tough terrains.
- They all have a camera, allowing the EOD specialist to monitor activity from an operations van outside the safety perimeter.
- Again in May 2010, a pipe bomb exploded outside a Mosque in Jacksonville, Florida.
- Once the RCV is at the explosive device, the EOD specialist uses its extending arms to move items out of the way or even to pick the device up for transport to a safe location.
It takes a great deal of practice to get used to extending the arms and manipulating objects with the limited depth perception the monitor provides. EOD teams conduct regular familiarization training with each piece of equipment and on each step of the process. They may practice picking items up with the RCV or even opening doors.
This practice helps them get used to limited depth perception while manipulating items that are safe. Along with this familiarization training, most EOD teams conduct realistic training scenarios at least every six months to test their skills in preparation for a potential attack or discovery of unexploded ordinance from past wars. They deploy to a location to isolate and disarm or remove a simulated explosive device.
Many RCVs also have other sensing equipment:
- Microphones allow the technician to hear any sound the device may make.
- X-ray equipment can be used remotely by EOD specialists to scan the interior of the device and the detonator mechanism in order to plan how to disarm or disrupt the explosive.
- Some RCVs, usually for use in combat zones, have sensors that can detect chemical or biological weapons or even radiation from a potential nuclear device or “dirty bomb” — a conventional explosive that contains radioactive material throughout an area to contaminate it.
These sensors help the EOD specialists as they form their plan of approach to disrupt the device or to remove it to a safe location for a controlled detonation. They can also use the information to warn civil authorities in the area — or, if on the battlefield, other military units — of any potential increase in danger from an IED that may contain more than explosives.
When using an RCV to neutralize an IED, EOD technicians need to monitor for secondary devices that could be put in place to eliminate the RCV, putting the technician in the position of having to move forward to manually neutralize the device. The technician has to be especially attentive to the possibility of secondary explosives if the RCV can't be maneuvered there.
While armored bomb suits offer a great deal of protection, there are IEDs used on the battlefield that are able to penetrate the armor of the U.S. Army's M1 Abrams main battle tank. No amount of bomb suit can protect an EOD specialist from a blast with that intensity, and there are many other less destructive devices that can create explosions greater than the level of protection a bomb suit can provide. It's easy to see why the RCV is the preferred method to get close enough to neutralize an explosive device by everyone in the EOD field.
These are often used to disarm improvised explosive devices. They originally used a water projectile to quickly blast the detonator apart to prevent — or "disrupt" — an explosion, but some are more similar to a shotgun, shooting out a blast of pellets or other projectiles to tear apart the detonation system of the explosive.
These devices can be deployed using an RCV, but they can also be put in place manually if an RCV can't be moved to the location of the device. EOD might also put a disruptor in place with a long extending rod to eliminate the need to get close to the explosive.
Under the right conditions, EOD personnel have even used sniper rifles or military assault rifles to disrupt/destroy explosive devices from a safe distance on the battlefield.
Lasers are now often being used to neutralize explosives. The U.S. military has been experimenting with laser systems to disrupt explosive devices since the 1980s. The beam from the high intensity laser is used to heat the device relatively quickly so the explosive material inside begins to burn. This causes a lower-level explosion and limits damage to a large degree.
The U.S. Navy developed the ZEUS-HLONS (Humvee Laser Ordnance Neutralization System). This laser system is mounted on a Humvee and can be used to neutralize surface explosives up to 300 meters away. This system has been used by the U.S. military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to neutralize roadside explosives.
The Army and Air Force have been developing a similar system that is mounted on a much larger mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle. The air force intends to use these larger vehicles to clear ordinance, such as cluster bombs, from air fields much more quickly than traditional EOD methods can.
Lasers are limited by the need for "line of sight" with the explosive device. A vehicle with such a laser may need to be uphill from the device in order to disrupt it.
Blast containment receptacles
These items are used whenever possible — and necessary — to control or eliminate the blast radius of an explosive device. While some laboratories may have larger containment tanks for EOD use, these receptacles are vehicle-mounted or put on heavy-duty trailers so they can be brought wherever the need for them arises.
This mobility allows for devices to be transported to a safe place for detonation. If the conditions merit, devices can even be detonated in what would ordinarily be an unsafe location with little risk of collateral damage or injuries.
Some bomb squad blast containers allow for the blast to vent upward — or in any other safe direction — but most of them are gas tight. So, after the device has been placed inside, the container is closed, preventing the shock wave and any shrapnel from escaping.
Some blast containment receptacles are permanently in place at various locations that are considered high probability targets for an IED attack. These locations include areas as around airports or other transit stations and around many government buildings.
In the event of an IED placement or suspected IED placement, an EOD specialist can use an RCV to bring the device to the receptacle for a controlled detonation or disruption. These EOD blast containers can double as regular trash cans until the need may arise to use them for their primary purpose.
Vehicle- and trailer-mounted containment tanks are standard equipment for law enforcement and military EOD teams. If a disruptor device can't be used because of potential collateral damage, and the explosive device is relatively safely moveable, an RCV can be used to lift and carry the explosive to the container. The device can be transported for detonation a safe distance away.
Part of the regular training for EOD personnel is to practice using an RCV to bring a simulated IED to a blast containment tank and to place the device inside.
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