Bomb Squad Diary

A high-tech form of bomb disposal has evolved on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be coming to a city near you



I’m on Iraq’s main north-south highway, sitting in my undershirt and armor with two Navy bomb-disposal technicians in a million dollar 26-ton armored truck.

I am having one of the signature experiences of this war.

It’s late January, about 3:00 on a cloudy, humid, windless afternoon. We’re on the edge of the city of Tikrit. A couple donkeys stand in the muddy median nearby. Half a dozen similarly priced and armored U.S. Army vehicles are scattered around us, pulling security and blocking traffic. A military supply convoy stretches behind us, followed by a motionless queue of cars and trucks kilometers long, with some very irritated Iraqis inside them.

In front of us, 125 meters away, there is only one thing: an improvised explosive device.

We’re going to blow it up.

“Hey, this is your day,” says the Navy tech who’s driving the truck and leading our little three-man crew. He grins at me behind dark aviator glasses and a thick mop of wavy black hair. “How many reporters get to go back to New York and say, ‘I blew up an IED?’ ”

Humming a Suzanne Vega tune, the other Navy man, in the back of the truck, peers at the IED through the optics of a remotely controlled robot called a Talon, which costs almost exactly as much as an Aston Martin DB9 roadster. He’s prodding the object with the Talon’s manipulator arm.

The IED, which cost its builder less than the price of a couple of Aston Martin wheel rims, looks like a big burlap bag with two oversize sandbags inside. Working the joysticks of his briefcase-size remote, the tech grabs one of the bags with the Talon’s arm. “I can’t pull ’em or push ’em,” he reports. “They’re heavy.”

In fact, they might actually be sandbags. This thing might be a fake IED, put here to distract us from a real one nearby. Or it might have been placed here just to let hidden insurgents watch and learn from how we deal with it.

Then again, the bags might be filled with explosives. Supporting that possibility are a few other objects in the burlap bag coming into view on the briefcase monitor in the truck, courtesy of the Talon’s video camera. These objects could be an artillery round or two, and maybe some control electronics. A pair of shiny, shellacked copper wires leads away from the bag in the general direction of a small, single-story concrete building about a kilometer away.

Enough already. There’s one surefire way to find out if the IED is real: detonate a charge on it. The robot operator summons the Talon back to the truck, and the driver hands it some blocks of C-4 explosive attached to a reel of shock tube. He hands me the reel. The robot whirs back to the IED, spinning the reel in my lap. The robot drops the C-4 between the two bags.

The driver hands me the igniter. I grip it tightly in my left hand while inserting my right middle finger into the ring at the end of its firing pin.

“Stand by for fire in the hole in 15 seconds,” the driver says over the truck’s public-address system. “Fire in the hole in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…”

Explosive ordnance disposal has come a long way since the London Blitz. Over eight months in 1940 and ’41, hundreds of thousands of bombs rained down on British cities, killing an estimated 43 000 people and leaving 1.4 million homeless. Roughly 10 percent of the bombs did not explode, and the job of defusing them fell mostly to army but also to a few navy units. Assigned to one of these was an American named Draper L. Kauffman.

After the United States entered the war, the U.S. Navy gave Kauffman the task of creating a school for bomb-disposal technicians, which survives to this day. For more than 60 years, trainees have learned to dispose of unexploded bombs, locate and destroy mines on land and underwater, demolish underwater obstacles to beach and harbor assaults, move ammunition stores, and clean up after munitions accidents.

Those tasks kept explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) techs busy until about six years ago, when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started generating wave upon wave of IEDs. The tide started in Afghanistan in 2002 but gained enormous momentum months later in Iraq, where vast ammunition caches set up by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s provided insurgents with an estimated million tons of artillery rounds and other explosives. Early on, the standard IED was one or more artillery rounds rigged to a radio-based detonator such as a cellphone or a garage-door opener.

Coalition EOD teams did their best to keep up. Unfortunately, their techniques, tactics, and technology had been developed for fundamentally different problems. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, a bomb in the road was usually a mine. Any trained EOD technician could identify its type, and therefore its inner workings, on sight. An IED, unlike a mine, can be detonated at the push of a cellphone button by a man peering through a pair of binoculars at the EOD tech grappling with it.

Five years ago, EOD teams were traveling the roads of Iraq in unarmored Humvees. When they approached IEDs, they sometimes wore heavy bomb suits, which offered limited protection to vital organs but were cumbersome and stifling in the Iraqi heat, despite their whirring ventilator fans. Most techs preferred to take their chances without them, and many of them were killed—more than 50 over the next four years, according to the EOD Memorial Web site (

In the end, new tactics and techniques emerged based on small, maneuverable robots, gyroscopically stabilized optics, exotic systems to detect buried wires and metal, electronic jammers to defeat radio-controlled IEDs, and blast-resistant vehicles. Meanwhile, for the first time EOD techs were routinely integrated into combat and covert missions, to deal with IEDs encountered while moving through hostile areas.

“The American military has invented, in about three or four years, a way of warfare that didn’t exist before,” says Daniel Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “That’s lightning speed.”

Today EOD techs have other responsibilities, like postblast and forensic analysis at IED attack sites. The information they gather helps flesh out dossiers on bomb makers, bomb-making cells, and the social, financial, and logistical networks that supply and sustain them.

Regardless of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new technologies and tactics will endure. Long after the conflicts in those places have subsided, IEDs, including car and suicide bombs, will continue to wreak bloody havoc. Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, there are more than 200 IED attacks every month around the world, according to the British counter-IED consulting firm Hazard Management Solutions.

“We will be fighting an irregular war for the next 20 or 30 years,” says Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, the director of the U.S. military’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), in an interview. “The enemy doesn’t want to fight us at sea, or in the air, or in a pitched land battle. The enemy is going to fight us in an electromagnetic environment,” using IEDs.

The day began at Contingency Operating Base Speicher with a predawn briefing and a prayer. Nineteen of us stand around in a circle in the light thrown by our huge armored vehicles. The two Navy EOD specialists—the team leader–driver and the robot operator—and I will be in a Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle, or JERRV. We’ll be part of a convoy with more than a dozen Army specialists riding in several of these vehicles, all equipped with high-end optics and other systems to help spot and manipulate IEDs.

Most of the soldiers are shouting and joking and laughing; they look like teenagers. By contrast the Navy EOD techs seem subdued and world-weary. They’re both in their mid-20s. I’m old enough to be their father.

Two of the Army vehicles are encased in steel cages, to deflect or destroy rocket-propelled grenades. One of them has a giant robotic arm to paw through trash and whatever turns up. Mounted to the front of one of the other vehicles is the same air blower used to dry the track at Nascar races; here it’ll blow away trash heaps, which sometimes conceal IEDs.

The briefing covers intelligence on local insurgents and procedures to follow if we find IEDs, come under attack, or need medical evacuation by helicopter. We get our call sign: “trip wire.” Then a soldier says a prayer out loud.

After leaving Speicher, we’ll travel north on Iraq’s main north-south thoroughfare, Highway 1, which the U.S. military calls Main Supply Route Tampa. At some point we’ll turn around and drop in for lunch at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Summerall, north of Bayji. If all goes well, we’ll be back at Speicher in time for dinner.

This IED-hunting exercise is called route clearance. It keeps the roads open for supply convoys transporting fuel, mail, spare parts, ammunition, computers, soap, video-game consoles, lightbulbs, furniture. And food, of course.

Anyone who has ever spent time in a war zone understands the importance of food. In Iraq, the quantity, quality, and variety of comestibles in the dozens of far-flung U.S. dining facilities result from multiple logistical wonders that occur every day. (“Ice cream!” an EOD veteran had blurted out to me over dinner the night before, laughing so hard he was red in the face. “You’ve got guys risking their lives so that some far-off FOB can have Baskin-Robbins. Think about it, man!”)

The sky is just starting to lighten as we roll out. We pull up to a huge pit, and the Navy techs let me test-fire the JERRV’s .50-caliber machine gun into it, provoking amused radio commentary from the soldiers in the vehicles lined up behind us. Then we rumble and bounce through the gates, and the driver flips on the US $80 000 electronic jammer. It puts out signals powerful enough to swamp the receivers of any radio-controlled IEDs that we might encounter [see Web-only sidebar, “The Electromagnetic Struggle.”

Photo: Glenn Zorpette

On 28 January 2008, near Tikrit, two U.S. soldiers pause before a route-clearance mission to hunt for improvised explosive devices.

We listen to pulsating rock music on an iPod plugged into an excellent sound system, an unofficial “aftermarket” addition to the JERRV, which costs a little over $1 million, nicely equipped. I sit in the “death” seat next to the driver, wearing headphones that let me talk to the Navy techs and also with the other vehicles in the convoy. Outside the thick Lexan windows flows an overcast tableau of scrubby, rocky, littered desert and the occasional cluster of decrepit concrete houses, villas, and abandoned gasoline stations.

An hour later we’re skirting the city of Bayji. Occasionally, we pass men sitting in chairs drinking tea, or working on a car. Five little boys playing near the side of the road wave to us, and the robot operator throws them a handful of lollipops.

After 40 minutes a spotter in one of the vehicles ahead of us sees something in the road and we all stop. It turns out to be a big metal box with two bricks in it and some wires attached—your basic fake IED. Word comes back over the radio and we wait while the Army specialists search for other devices.

Insurgents place dummy IEDs for any of several reasons: to videotape how a route-clearance team deals with an IED so they can refine their methods of attack, for example, or to halt the teams so they can fire rocket-propelled grenades at the vehicles.

A while later we hear over the radio that just after we left, Iraqi Police stopped a car and detained the five men inside it. They had the standard trappings of IED emplacers: long-range cordless phones (used to trigger the bombs), AK-47 assault rifles, and a digital video camera. It’s likely we had been videotaped.

We continue on at a pace that seems excruciatingly slow. I ask the team leader what he thinks of the “concerned local citizens,” the U.S. military term for the Sunni Iraqis, also known as Awakening members, who are paid modestly to help capture insurgents and disrupt bomb-making networks. “It’s the best thing we’ve got going,” the team leader says. “It’s not controlled by the IA or the IP”—the Iraqi Army or the Iraqi Police.

“It’s probably why this route clearance is so routine,” the robot operator chimes in from the back of the truck.

A few minutes later, the team leader, who is on his third deployment, talks about some of his previous missions. “You see weird stuff on route clearance,” he says. “I’ve seen 12 or 15 vehicles get blown up in front of me. You’ll see people pop up and squirt out of buildings running. I’ve dealt with postblast where there were deaths or body parts. On my last deployment, we got blown up twice, both times because an officer ran over a pressure plate.”

Maybe that’s why he seemed so much older than the Army specialists on their first deployment.

We turn left onto a route that loops around Bayji rather than going through it; the Americans call this the Hershey Bypass. At 9:40 a.m., we stop to answer nature’s call.

“Get a good look around before you hop out,” the team leader advises. “And close the door after you go out.”

Later, the robot operator, a Navy lieutenant who is less experienced than the team leader, comments on the lack of action so far. “The way I feel is, I’m here; I’m away from my wife. There is s—t out there to be taken care of. If I’m here and I’m not finding it, I feel like I’m wasting my time.”

The team leader shrugs wearily. “I’ve seen enough IEDs in my life. I really don’t care if I never see one again.”

The radio hisses: “Just before the overpass. There’s a hole in the left side…a wire beside it. It doesn’t look like the wire goes in the hole.” Another false alarm. On we go.

We get to the top of our route around midday. We turn around, drive for 45 minutes or so, and pull in to FOB Summerall a little after noon. We stop by the EOD tactical operations center to drop off a coffee machine we’d brought with us from Speicher. A team leader there tells us that last night a raid in the desert nearby yielded 140 fifty-kilogram bags of homemade explosive. The pathway leading to the operations center is a line of captured 130-millimeter brass artillery shell cases, laid side by side, gleaming yellow in the brown dirt.

Every war has its iconic vehicles. World War II had the Jeep; Vietnam had Huey helicopters; the first Gulf War had the Humvee. Iraq has “mine resistant, ambush protected” vehicles, including the JERRV.

The U.S. government’s approach to countering IEDs has been criticized as being overly reliant on technology and overly preoccupied with finding and disabling IEDs already on the roads. The JERRV is the apotheosis of that approach; still, there’s no arguing with its success. Hundreds of EOD techs have gone on thousands of missions since the first JERRVs arrived in late 2005, and so far only two men have been killed by an IED while in a JERRV: Chief Petty Officer Patrick L. Wade and Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffrey L. Chaney.

They lost their lives on 17 July 2007, after an IED packed in a culvert underneath a road in northern Iraq threw their 26â¿¿ton vehicle several tens of meters. The equivalent weight of the explosive was later estimated to be many hundreds of kilograms of TNT. The blast crater was about 100 cubic meters.

It’s hard not to love a JERRV when you’re inside one, in Iraq, far from any base, cocooned within its armor and technology and massive, purpose-built utilitarianism. Its soft red lighting is easy on the eyes at night. The doors are of a composite material, the better to withstand attacks from rocket-propelled grenades and explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal form of IED. Steel plates protect the engine compartment. The machine gun on top fires armor-piercing incendiary rounds.

In racks in the cabin and behind the dashboard may be installed several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of electronics: the jammer; a gyroscopically stabilized optical system called a Gyrocam; frequency-hopping VHF radios; and a blue-force tracker, which shows the truck’s position, tracks it relative to other “friendlies,” and allows them all to communicate.

On a previous route-clearance mission, Master Chief Michael Perdun had marveled at the improvement in transport. “One day you’re flying around the country with canvas doors on your Hummer, and the next day you’re in this,” he said, with a wave to indicate the diesel-driven vault we were riding in.

Of course, JERRVs also carry the tools of the bomb-disposal trade: a big cabinet stocked with C-4 and other explosives, reels of shock tube, igniters—and the robots, usually Talons, which let the EOD techs do most of what they need to do while sitting inside the truck.

The Talon robot is produced by Foster-Miller Technologies, a U.S. subsidiary of the British defense company QinetiQ, and it costs about $160 000. It is typically controlled by radio and it moves on tracks, like a tiny tank, with an amusingly jaunty whir. There are more than 2000 of them in Iraq and several hundred in Afghanistan. In a typical configuration it weighs about 52 kg, can keep pace with a person who is jogging briskly, and has video cameras that can be switched between visible, thermal, and night vision. There’s also a version that can be outfitted with a .30-caliber machine gun or a .50-caliber rifle. And Talons don’t leave other Talons on the battlefield: if an IED blast damages a Talon, another one is dispatched to drag the broken one back to the JERRV (which is why JERRVs always carry more than one Talon).

The Pentagon’s goal for future EOD robots is to give them more intelligence and, therefore, autonomy. An Advanced EOD Robot System (AEODRS) is to be deployed in the next five years. The lead organization for the project, which has not yet been formally approved, will be the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division, in Indian Head, Md.

The division declined my request to visit but agreed to answer written questions. What will the new robot be able to do that the existing ones can’t? I asked. “AEODRS is envisioned to have significant autonomy as appropriate for the EOD mission, scalability/family of systems, modularity/plug&play and EM [electromagnetic] environment capability,” came the e-mail response.

And what exactly does “significant autonomy” mean? It conjures a vision of a tech crouched in an armored truck, peering at the scene from his robot’s video cam on the display of a tablet computer and using a stylus to circle an IED. With no more direction, the robot makes its way to the bomb on its own.

But if that’s one of the capabilities the Navy envisions for its future bomb-disposal robots, it isn’t ready to say so yet. “NAVEODTECHDIV is currently working with the EOD users to determine what types of autonomy are ‘right’ for EOD missions” is all they would tell me.

It was an appointment near Samarra. And it was a prime example of why, six months later, as this article was being written, IED attacks had fallen off in Iraq.

On 8 January, U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, along with Navy EOD techs, crept toward a cluster of buildings and tents believed to be a camp of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the main foreign insurgent group. The mission was dubbed Operation Fulton Harvest, and it began with a tip from a local source. The area, in the desert southwest of Samarra, is dotted with sparse clusters of small dwellings. The EOD team was there to use various technologies to detect any IEDs or other booby traps.

Two of the first three buildings the raiders came upon had been used as a place to mix ammonium nitrate fertilizer with diesel fuel or urea to make bulk explosive and also to dry the resulting product. The third building was an IED-production house. It was clear that the facilities were in active use, said Maj. Kelly Kendrick, the operations officer of the 101st Airborne, in an interview at Speicher two weeks after the raid.

Spotters on helicopters found a footpath near the third building leading through some tall grass to a living and cooking area that included several tents. The soldiers had gotten about 5 meters into the tall grass when they were attacked.

There was an all-out firefight with 15 to 20 insurgents. For 15 minutes the air buzzed and roared with bullets, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and even mortars, all at close range. Three soldiers were killed and two wounded; three insurgents were killed and three captured. The rest of the insurgents escaped.

Over the next few days the EOD and other specialists uncovered a network of underground bunkers and tunnels underneath the tent area, including an al-Qaeda command-and-control center and another underground chamber that had been booby-trapped with a grenade.

They found enough raw materials to make 4000 kg of homemade explosive and, in a nearby house, 1500 kg of finished product. There was a dump-truck-size vehicle being turned into a vehicle-borne IED, with 1000 kg of explosive, Kendrick said. There were four other smaller vehicles also being converted to VBIEDs, and nine other big IEDs being built with “victim-operated” triggers, such as pressure plates.

The investigators also found weapons and armaments, electronics training manuals in Arabic, $16 800 in $100 bills, some Sudanese money, and lots of ball bearings, which insurgents pack around an IED’s main charge to maximize death and destruction. There were also personal computers and simple video-production facilities to make and mass-produce grisly propaganda video discs, which the team found stacked by the thousands in one of the underground chambers.

It was a standard insurgent camp. During the several weeks I spent north of Baghdad, raids like that one occurred at a rate of several a week within a 75-km radius of Tikrit. Virtually all of them began in the same way, with a tip from a local resident or a former insurgent who was fed up with al-Qaeda or other foreign fighters.

Photo: Danfung Dennis/WPN

Man, Machine: Thayer Jones, a U.S. Navy EOD tech, rests in a JERRV during a route-clearance mission on 24 July 2007.

The cumulative effect of those and countless other raids, several months later, was a steep decrease in the rate of IED attacks in Iraq. The tip-offs and raids did what billions of dollars spent developing technologies, some exotic, apparently could not. Can it be that old-fashioned community relations and police work are all that matter and that the technological solutions the U.S. military has been chasing are a mirage?

It’s a tempting argument, at least superficially, but it overlooks the many factors and chores beyond tips and firefights that are necessary to take apart an IED network. Also, it underestimates what technology does, because much of the technology is classified. U.S. military officials will say only that technology-based forensics from captured IEDs, postblast analysis, and other sources are helping them to understand networks and even identify individual bomb makers. “They’re tracking those guys a lot better than they were a couple years ago,” said Lt. j.g. Scott Bryant, a Navy EOD tech at Forward Operating Base Falcon, south of Baghdad, in an interview a few weeks after the Fulton Harvest raid.

Even a straightforward raid on an insurgent camp involves technology: the mission often begins with overhead reconnaissance and surveillance, often from pilotless drone aircraft. And as far as I could tell from my interviews in Iraq, no commanders would think of raiding a camp without taking along EOD techs trained in the use of classified technologies to sweep the roads and footpaths for IEDs.

“We absolutely need science and technology,” says Col. Kevin Lutz, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Troy, the U.S. military organization that oversees EOD and related activities in Iraq. “It’s not a panacea, but we cannot do without it.”

“I had a cow on my last deployment,” the team leader reminisces. Insurgents have often concealed IEDs in dead (and occasionally live) animals. So EOD operators generally blow up any animal carcass they come across. “We put four blocks of C-4 in its ass.”

We’re about 8 hours into the mission and we’re getting a little bored.

At 2:33 p.m., with Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” playing on the sound system, the radio hisses the words that suddenly make life interesting: “Possible IED on southbound lane. Wires running west.”

“Well, we’re gonna get to blow something up,” the team leader says. He says it the way a farmer might say, “It looks like we’re gonna get a little rain.”

Ten minutes later we see the IED, or fake IED, in the road. “I think I see our present up here,” the team leader says.

“Yeah, that’s cute,” replies the robot operator.

We pull up near the two donkeys, next to a soldier who is holding an M-16 across his chest. The team leader leans out the door and asks, “What’s going on?”

The soldier says the thing looks like two 120-mm artillery rounds in a burlap bag with wires coming out of it.

The robot operator sends out the Talon. He finds bags inside the burlap that are too heavy to push or pull with the robot’s arm. “That’s UBE or sand,” he says. “We’ll find out when we blow it.” (UBE means “unidentified bulk explosive.”)

He steers the robot back to the JERRV. The team leader ties a big knot in some shock tube and tapes it up with a blasting cap and two blocks of C-4 plastic explosive. Shock tube is plastic hose a few millimeters in diameter, lined inside with a dusting of HMX explosive and fine aluminum powder. One end of the tube is attached to an igniter, and the other to a blasting cap wrapped up in some blocks of C-4. The igniter, a tube 12 centimeters long with a pin in one end, starts a shock wave that travels down the tube at 2000 meters per second, sustained by the explosive inner lining. The shock wave triggers the blasting cap, which detonates the C-4.

“Stand by for fire in the hole in 15 seconds,” the team leader announces. “Fire in the hole in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

I pull the pin on the igniter. There’s an orange fireball, maybe 12 meters in diameter. I feel a thump like a punch in the chest. The igniter sparks and sizzles in my hand. A cloud of black smoke drifts toward us.

“Yep, that was definitely some s—t,” the team leader says. He keys the iPod and blasts “Play That Funky Music” while he and the robot operator play air drums.

There’s frag in the road around the blast site, which means that in among the bags of UBE there was also almost certainly an artillery shell or two, to create shrapnel.

We gather up the IED’s command wires, enamel-covered copper. They clearly lead to a one-story building, about 25 meters square, a kilometer or so away. The team leader and the robot operator debate about what they should do. “Whoever was there, dude, they’re gone now,” the team leader says. “I guarantee it.”

“Still, we could find s—t. Make the house go away.”

In the end, they decide to let the house stand. “My experience with command wire,” the team leader tells me, “is that when you trace it out, there’s rarely anything at the end of it except a power source and a switch.”

“Where do you turn off your aggression level?” he muses. He’s been in situations where there was also a combat team, whose commander was “basing his decision on what you say—whether they destroy a house or knock down a building.”

We do some postblast analysis and then drive back to Speicher. At the EOD tactical operations center, we learn that five U.S. soldiers in a Humvee have just been killed in an IED attack and coordinated ambush from a mosque in Mosul, north of where we were. No one says anything for a minute or two.

The buzz from having blown up a bomb is gone.

Editor’s note: To minimize the possibility that information in this article could endanger coalition personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan, a draft of this article was reviewed by current and former officials of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a U.S. Defense Department agency. In response to those reviews, IEEE Spectrum voluntarily eliminated some details concerning the mission recounted in this article.