UK — Beating the IED threat in Helmand

Men, machines, and most recent­ly, ani­mals, are work­ing togeth­er to beat the biggest threat to troops in Afghanistan — impro­vised explo­sive devices (IEDs) laid by insur­gents. Report by Sharon Kean.

Camp Bastion in Afghanistan
Staff Sergeant Quigley (right) instructs Pri­vate Pur­dy, a search dog han­dler, dur­ing train­ing for oper­a­tions at Camp Bas­tion in Afghanistan
Source: Cor­po­ral Lyn­ny Cash, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

A com­bi­na­tion of search teams and bomb dis­pos­al experts (Advanced Defence Explo­sive Ord­nance Dis­pos­al) from across the forces form Counter-IED (C‑IED) teams.

These work along­side the infantry bat­tal­ions fight­ing on the front line in Hel­mand province, and can be called upon to deal with any IEDs sol­diers find.

Lieu­tenant Paul Lucy, a Roy­al Engi­neers offi­cer lead­ing a search team that spent a six-month win­ter deploy­ment in Hel­mand, said:

“Searchers have hand-held detec­tors but their main tools are their eyes. The hand-held detec­tor is a great piece of kit, but the key thing is to keep your eyes and ears open as well.”

Lieu­tenant Lucy is a Roy­al Engi­neer Search Advi­sor head­ing a team which includes a com­man­der, a sec­ond-in-com­mand and a num­ber of sap­pers who car­ry out the search­es:

Belgian Shepherd high assurance search dogs at Camp Bastion have a proven ability to cope with the heat and a good nose for sniffing out bombs
Bel­gian Shep­herd high assur­ance search dogs at Camp Bas­tion have a proven abil­i­ty to cope with the heat and a good nose for sniff­ing out bombs
Source: Cor­po­ral Lyn­ny Cash, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“My role is to assess the threat, which can change minute-by-minute,” he said. “Search­es are usu­al­ly at a slow and safe pace, but it depends what’s going on around the sol­diers.”

When IEDs are found, the team’s explo­sive ord­nance dis­pos­al (EOD) oper­a­tives are called out to dis­pose of them.

That two such men were award­ed George Cross­es ear­li­er this year speaks vol­umes about the impor­tance of their role:

“A search team would­n’t go any­where with­out EOD oper­a­tives, because there’s no point in find­ing some­thing if it can’t be dealt with,” said Lieu­tenant Lucy.

His team was deployed with Roy­al Welsh infantry dur­ing Oper­a­tion MOSHTARAK, a com­bined effort with the Afghan Nation­al Army to break into the Baba­ji area of Hel­mand ear­ly this year:

“We found two or three bomb fac­to­ries and at least ten devices,” he said.

Counter-IED teams are like­ly to become famil­iar with every cor­ner of Hel­mand over the course of a six-month tour. Some mis­sions will be more stress­ful than oth­ers.

Lance Corporal Matthew Bowring with his search dog Vaske
Lance Cor­po­ral Matthew Bowring with his search dog Vaske
Source: Cor­po­ral Lyn­ny Cash, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Cap­tain Gareth Bate­man, Sec­ond-in-Com­mand of the Joint Force EOD Group, said:

“You might find a team in San­gin is going on planned oper­a­tions every day, while oth­ers are not so busy.

“We rotate teams to main­tain momen­tum among the bat­tle groups and to keep the teams fresh as well. As you can imag­ine, the con­cen­tra­tion lev­els these guys require is very high.”

Now the bomb squads are ben­e­fit­ing from new col­leagues — Bel­gian Shep­herds. Sleek and pow­er­ful­ly built, the dogs have a proven abil­i­ty to cope with the heat and a good nose for sniff­ing out IEDs.

In the train­ing area, the dogs work close­ly with their han­dlers. Staff Sergeant Mal­colm Quigley, the dogs’ chief train­er, said:

“If a dog finds some­thing, it indi­cates this, and the search team takes over. The dogs pro­vide the ear­ly warn­ing pro­tec­tion.”

Choco­lat is a dog who has already seen front line action, includ­ing an unplanned ride in a Chi­nook heli­copter when he was evac­u­at­ed as a med­ical emer­gency.

Trojan armoured engineer tank in Helmand province
A Tro­jan armoured engi­neer tank in Hel­mand province. Tro­jan vehi­cles may be equipped with the Python trail­er-mount­ed, rock­et-pro­pelled mine-clear­ing sys­tem
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

But it was­n’t an IED that saw the dog land in Bastion’s field hos­pi­tal for treat­ment, rather it was an unfor­tu­nate encounter with some barbed wire:

“Team medics are trained to resus­ci­tate dogs and to put intra­venous lines into them,” said Cap­tain Bate­man.

Choco­lat has since recov­ered and is run­ning rings around his han­dler who takes him out for phys­i­cal train­ing (PT):

“They’re very fit ani­mals indeed,” says Staff Sergeant Quigley. “After a PT ses­sion they’ll have a drink then look at us as if to say ‘let’s do it again’.”

An alter­na­tive to man or beast is a machine that sim­ply blasts through belts of IEDs.

One exam­ple is the Roy­al Engi­neers’ awe­some Tro­jan. The tracked mon­ster is equipped with a mine destruc­tion sys­tem which was fired in anger dur­ing Oper­a­tion MOSHTARAK.

The weapon blast­ed all IEDs in its path, clear­ing a safe route for con­voys of vehi­cles car­ry­ing stores and equip­ment to front line bases:

Python mine-clearing system from a Trojan armoured vehicle
Launch­ing the rock­et of the Python mine-clear­ing sys­tem from a Tro­jan armoured vehi­cle dur­ing an equip­ment demon­stra­tion at Warmin­ster in Wilt­shire
Source: Cor­po­ral Russ Nolan, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

“We led an armoured con­voy of around 50 vehi­cles,” said Lieu­tenant Jim Viney, who com­mand­ed a Tro­jan. “We had our hatch­es closed down and, when the rock­et went off, we could feel the pres­sure as it left. The main feel­ing was of relief — that it had gone off and done its job.”

While Tro­jan was ide­al dur­ing the fast-paced advance of Oper­a­tion MOSHTARAK, it could nev­er replace the need for troops and dogs on the ground, who work near to and even in towns and vil­lages:

“You can’t reas­sure the local peo­ple if you go smash­ing through with a tank,” said Cap­tain Bate­man.

The ben­e­fits of main­tain­ing neigh­bourly rela­tions became clear dur­ing Op MOSHTARAK:

“Rather than hav­ing to search for IEDs, locals start­ed to tell us where they were.”

This arti­cle is tak­en from the August 2010 edi­tion of Defence Focus — the mag­a­zine for every­one in Defence.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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