CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 3, 2017 — “Help, I’ve got a bomb strapped to me!” the hostage yelled to the explosive ordnance disposal technician as he gingerly stepped over a booby-trapped victim to approach the hostage on the stairs.
This is just one of the many realistic scenarios U.S. and Belgian service members and federal, state and local public safety bomb squads face during the Raven’s Challenge XI exercise here this week.
Raven’s Challenge is an international full-scale, live-fire, counter-improvised-explosive-device interoperability exercise that presents participating military EOD technicians and civilian public safety bomb squads with the opportunity to coalesce as a team, develop a plan and respond to an IED problem set, said John Simpson, Raven’s Challenge exercise program manager. Simpson served in the Army as an EOD technician for 22 years and has been with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Atlanta for 15 years.
Exchanging Ideas and Methods
Exercises like Raven’s Challenge are important because it increases the interoperability between the military and law enforcement agencies to meet domestic threats, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Simpson said.
“This is the perfect exercise to have the military and public safety bomb squads training together and working together before another Boston occurs,” said Don Robinson, special agent in charge with the ATF’s National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Huntsville, Alabama. “We run these exercises so they can exchange ideas, get familiar with each other’s tactics, techniques and procedures and equipment, and just familiarize them with each other and how each side’s going to perform its mission.
“They’re finding out how long it takes to get things approved and how long it takes procedures to happen on each side here for the first time instead of in the real world in a real situation,” he said. “They bring so much experience, but they’re getting that crossover that they wouldn’t get at home station.”
Col. David Schmitt, chief of the Army’s counter-IED EOD solutions division at the Pentagon, said the best part about military EOD technicians training at Raven’s Challenge training with ATF, FBI and public safety bomb squads is that they can each learn new tactics, techniques and procedures, known as TTPs — from each other and establish connections.
“We include the federal agencies and military together. That provides … a rich depth of knowledge, because you’ve got some guys who have spent 20 years in the military and then gone on to work in the federal agencies and have been doing this for decades,” he said.
Many military EOD technicians have experience with IEDs in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places that the public safety bomb squads may not have seen, he noted. “And then you have some of the other scenarios, like the hostage situation — military service members don’t normally respond to something like that, but civilian bomb squads would normally train for that kind of scenario, so they may have more experience with that kind of thing.”
An exercise scenario in which military EOD technicians use night-vision goggles while disarming devices in a dark warehouse allows them to share their experiences and equipment, Schmitt added.
Chief Master Sgt. Douglas Moore, the Air Force’s EOD career field manager at the Pentagon, said exercises like Raven’s Challenge are essential for the interoperability training of the EOD enlisted force.
“Today, we have about 60 percent of our EOD airmen who’ve never deployed. We’ve turned over our active duty force relatively significantly, as well as our total force with the Guard and Reserve, so to bring all of those folks here to share information, look at some of the different environments and get training is important,” he said.
“We want to make sure we’re not just focusing on combat operations,” he continued, “and that’s what Raven’s Challenge is doing. It’s focusing on the domestic IED conventional operations as well, because we have to take different things into account when we’re operating in those kinds of environments.”
Army Staff Sgt. Sean Mattes said he and the other EOD technicians assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas, train with the El Paso bomb squad, the Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI.
“I can’t tell you how many different times we’ve been doing something with another service or another police department, and they’ve said, ‘Hey, I’ve got another way of doing that,’ and they do it,” said Army Spc. Seth Hamilton. “And the same thing goes for them. They’re doing something, and it’s like, ‘I can fix that for you real quick’ and you go over there and fix it right up. The biggest thing about these [exercises] is making things not only faster, but safer, safer, safer. So many different ideas are being thrown around out there, and it’s awesome. You can’t get it anywhere else.”
One example of a domestic operation any of the EOD technicians would face is a local police department or public safety bomb squad seeking help with unexploded ordnance such as a World War II souvenir a veteran has in his home or yard.
Al Carbonara has been with the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad for 21 years. If his officers respond to a military ordnance situation, he said, they try to take care of it first, and call their military counterparts if they can’t. “People don’t realize how much military ordnance is out there or how many meth labs,” he said. “People are making stuff, making homemade fireworks, things like that. … I got called out 14 times last week alone.”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Ault, an EOD technician from Travis Air Force Base, California, said it’s common for older veterans to have unexploded ordnance. “At our home station, we get called about once a week for various UXO calls, and then we have responded to various different suspected IEDs and things like that,” he said.
Air Force Senior Airman Alex Nona, another EOD technician from Travis, said his team attends monthly meetings with the Sacramento- and San Francisco-area bomb technicians and host training at their proficiency range.
“We go and do training with them, so we kind of know each other, so when they call up on the phone, it’s not us calling the police department. We’re talking to the bomb squad, and we know the people on the squads,” he said. “It’s really important to know who you’re working with and to know how they operate. They know what we have, and we know what they don’t have, so we can always go and support them.”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Darrell Linkus, an Air National Guard EOD technician from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, is a firefighter with the Westminster Fire Department as well. Because he is a guardsman and firefighter, he said, he works closely with his law enforcement counterparts in Colorado in the Denver area.
“It’s good to be able to work with these guys — see their TTPs, they can see our TTPs — and it’s something we can bring back, that interoperability with law enforcement and military EOD. It makes us work better together,” he said.