Insurgents famously learned how to wire cell phone triggers to IEDs, which led coalition forces to use electronic jamming. Asymetrical warfare tactics have consistently been a game of cat and mouse. (Defense Department)
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Red wire? Blue wire?
If only being an explosive ordnance technician were as simple in Afghanistan as it is in Hollywood. In reality, improvised explosive devices are continually evolving, but perhaps more importantly, so are the tactics used to deploy IEDs.
“EOD techs — historically we looked at the device. But, we are starting to expand. We are looking up and out to defeat not just the device, but to prevent the device from getting into the ground to begin with,” said Brett Erikson, a former Marine EOD Tech, who is now the Joint Asymmetric Threat Awareness Counter IED Program Manager for A-T Solutions, a private contractor that trains Marines.
Nowadays specialists must think like a terrorist to anticipate attacks or avoid them all together, all the while targeting the bomb-making networks that produce IEDs. That means in addition to “cutting the right wire,” they must act as a de facto police investigator and intelligence operative all rolled into one.
The approach requires innovative training, said Erikson, who spent 12 years in uniform, made several deployments supporting Force Reconnaissance and worked with the Corps’ Special Operations Training Group. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kicked off, counter-IED training was limited to a few weeks of pre-deployment schooling and focused mostly on post-blast analysis and electronics, he said.
After more than a decade at war, defined in large part by the use of IEDs, counter-IED lessons have started to consist of immersive exercises that pit students against one another in a sophisticated game of cat and mouse.
Highlighting the shift is a recent exercise led by A-T Solutions in mid-March at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C.
It began with intensive study of IED components, the most current bombs being constructed by enemy forces, and the strategy and weaknesses of individual terrorists and their organizations. It culminated when the course’s 20 students divided into two groups — allies and insurgents — and competed against one another.
The role-playing serves several functions, Erikson said.
First, it helps identify weaknesses in the way U.S. forces operate.
“One thing is to sit in the classroom and say think like an enemy. Another is to say you are the bad guy and must make a plan to attack the good guys,” he said. “If I am an EOD tech playing the bad guy, I know everything the good guy is going to do. I will look to exploit weaknesses in their operating procedure. That helps me ID that so when I go back to the ‘good guy’ side I can fix those weaknesses.”
Second, the exercises help Marines develop what Erikson called “advanced situational awareness.” What Erikson hopes to teach Marines is to anticipate where they will encounter threats before they leave the wire.
Understanding where the enemy prefers to place IEDs will help Marines ramp up at the right times and avoid being caught off guard. In Afghanistan, for example, insurgents show a preference for placing IEDs in canals where they can accommodate large amounts of explosives without having to dig.
Thinking like a terrorist also means developing an understanding of their social and moral norms, Erikson said. The assumption that an enemy force shares the same moral values as U.S. troops is a fatal mistake. For example, a Marine raised in mainstream American society, where the idea of killing women and children to get at one’s enemy is considered dishonorable, would not bomb a full market to kill enemies. So, one might subconsciously let guards down when surrounded by women, children and other non-combatants.
Many terrorists and insurgents around the world do not subscribe to the law of war that prohibits targeting civilians.
EOD techs also benefit from the knowledge law enforcement officials have gained during years fighting against domestic gangs. Insurgent networks and gangs operate in surprisingly similar ways, Erikson said.
The Marine Corps bought into that philosophy during the war in Afghanistan, going so far as to hire consultants from the Los Angeles Police Department and standing up Law Enforcement Battalions in 2012.
In return, military EOD techs are able to offer civilian law enforcement officers a look at emerging threats encountered on the battlefield before they are seen in the U.S.
The IEDs used to attack the 2013 Boston Marathon, for example, were similar to bombs in Afghanistan, Erikson said.
“We bring a keen understanding of devices that might make their way to the U.S. They have knowledge of how to attack criminal networks,” he said.
While not new, Erikson described IEDs as a persistent global threat. The days of merely learning what wire to cut, figuratively speaking, and the view of IEDs as a war-zone problem are over.