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Interview: Bomb disposal legend Chris Hunter on CIED “cat and mouse” battle

Major Chris Hunter QGM served as a British Army officer in the Royal Logistic Corps, tackling the ever-present improvised explosive device across the world’s most notorious terrorist hotspots, including Northern Ireland, Colombia, the Balkans, East Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since retiring from the MoD in 2007 as the most senior IED intelligence analyst, he has continued work to advance understanding and development in CIED with his work as a writer, broadcaster and consultant, and even collaborated with filmmakers on ‘The Hurt Locker’.

Defence IQ’s Richard de Silva tracked him down at a recent counter terror forum to get his perspective on current strategy and technology…

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The first point I’d like to discuss is simply current British Force or ISAF strategy, and what they’re doing at the moment. Is it effective? How much has it developed in the past two years or so, since we spoke to you last?

Effectively, the British strategy is the same as the ISAF strategy and the United States strategy; it’s sort of a three-pronged strategy.  One is to defeat the device itself and that’s the protection and the neutralisation component of it.  So all sorts of sensor technologies and also the man in the loop as well, going out there to physically find the device and then to render safe procedures, which might be remote means such as robots, semi-remote means, such as the use of hook and line.

And then, of course, the actual manual means going down there in a bomb suit and actually using a disruptor to smash the device to pieces, keeping all the components together so it can then subsequently be analysed so you can effectively reverse-engineer the bomb.  And, in so doing, you can identify how the device was made, bearing in mind it’s improvised – therefore, is it radio-control, is it timed, and so on.

But also it enables you to get the forensics, the biometrics, the DNA all that sort of stuff as well.  And that’s absolutely essential because the second part of the three-pronged strategy, if you like, is to have a network that comes in many, many forms.  That’s very much an intelligence-driven, bottom-up and top-down strategy.  To give an example, when I talked about that idea of actually analysing the device once it’s been disrupted, when we look at the forensics, the DNA, the biometrics, we are able to then profile the bomb maker. And there’s only a finite number of bomb makers with the requisite skill sets to manufacture the IEDs we’ve seen at this level of technical sophistication.

If you look at the IRA, for example, who were our primary threat for 30 years, the level of sophistication they achieved in 30 years – and they were considered the best bomb makers in the world – was superseded in just 12 months when we went into Iraq between 2003/2004, and that has just continued at a rapid and alarming rate.  It was superseded inAfghanistanin just 18 months and what we’re seeing is this continual cat and mouse, counter-measure strategy.

And so, because we’ve seen such an advance in technology and from every bomb maker’s tactics, techniques and procedures, we continually have to find ways to attack that network and remove the bomb maker from the equation.  Take the analogy “shoot the archer don’t shoot the arrow”. If you are just focusing on defeating a device, all you’re doing really is shooting the arrows but, because there are only a finite number of those bomb makers at that level of sophistication then, if you shoot the archer, if you remove the archer from the equation, effectively there aren’t going to be any more IEDs and they are certainly not going to be sophisticated enough.

So that’s a really essential component and we don’t just look at the device to see how it’s made and we don’t just look at the device to see what the forensics and DNA and biometrics are; we also look at it to help us to influence our Force protection measures as well, because, as I said, there’s this constant measure/counter-measure race.  A type of IED will come in, we’ll see it literally proliferate around the area and then, from there, we then bring in a counter-measure to protect our Force against it.  And very, very quickly after that counter-measure becoming effective, the insurgents will then design a new type of IED.

To give you another example, we’ve seen the increase and enhancement of armoured systems on vehicles, and it’s got to a stage where vehicles are so armoured that roadside bombs aren’t able to penetrate them.  So the insurgents have used tactics like literally digging up the tarmac or melting a tyre to melt the tarmac and then peeling the tarmac back, digging a big hole in it, filling it full of explosives, peeling the tarmac back over.  And as it, sort of, bakes dry in the midday sun it leaves no anomalies, and therefore it’s very, very difficult for our servicemen and women to then identify these devices.

But crucially it doesn’t matter how armoured a vehicle is if you’re using that sort of attack where you’ve got 300 kilos of high explosives and an armoured vehicle is driving over the top and it detonates then obviously that’s going to have an impact; you’re going to have a road traffic accident.  Therefore, they’re constantly thinking about these very, very shrewd ways of trying to overmatch our capabilities and respond in a far more deadly way.

So we constantly have to look at all the different avenues and opportunities available to us.  The final one is obviously ‘preparing the Force’ and that’s something that’s really developed and enhanced to a very high degree.  We’ve looked at all the tactics, techniques and procedures across all the insurgencies that we’ve ever fought in and, indeed, to our allied partners, and we’ve looked at best practice, at refining them and then tailoring them to the theatre of operations we’re in and – crucially – continually developed them and matched them to the threat of the day, and, ideally, we’re looking to the future and trying to outsmart the enemy.

Again, it’s this measure/counter-measure race, but it’s also like a game of extreme chess.  You’re constantly trying to second guess your enemy, your opponent, the bomb maker, who effectively is responsible for the tactical design of that attack.  And you’re thinking, “what is this attack trying to achieve? Is it trying to kill innocent civilians? Is it trying to kill members of the security forces?  Is it actually trying to kill the bomb technician, the ammunition technical officer who is on his way down to that device?… And perhaps he may know exactly where the device is but there may be something far more sinister waiting to lure him in or kill him as he’s being lured into the actual device itself.

So preparation of the Force is essential.  Before they deploy they are trained in lots and lots of tactics, techniques and procedures that will keep them alive, but it’s also done on the ground once they get into theatre and throughout the duration of their operational tours.  And then the feedback process is they return from the theatre to make sure that the next deploying troops are as up to speed and as up-to-date as they physically can be.

One of the things that we’ve realised in recent years as well is that… just looking at Afghanistan as one example… within the different regions of that one country the type of the device itself changes dramatically, so where troops might struggle with a very sophisticated device that may have been sourced from say, a rogue state, but they’re also struggling just as equally with very simple fertiliser-based devices.  So it’s the variation of the device; how do we stay on top of that both in terms of training, as you were saying, and both in terms of the technology available to us?  Is that essentially going to be the Achilles Heel to our attempts to overcome this enduring threat?

It’s a very, very good point; the terrorist will continue to use a specific type of IED until it becomes no longer viable, and by that I mean they will stop using it at a point at which we then bring in a successful counter-measure.  To give an example, in most insurgencies the bomb makers will quite often use command wire IEDs; there’ll effectively be an explosive main charge at the contact point, there’ll be some form of electrical wire linking the explosive main charge to the firing point where there will be some sort of power source and a firing switch.  And it literally is a remote long-range cable, and at one end of it you’ll have the trigger man, the terrorist, at the other end you will have the targets.

The problem with that is that the trigger man himself is at a specific point; he doesn’t get to choose, he doesn’t have options, he’s got limited escape routes and they are comparatively easy to detect.  Therefore, once those are no longer viable because of the tactics, techniques and procedures that are used by the security forces on the ground, they will then switch to another means, for example, radio-control IEDs.  And those radio-control IEDs obviously provide them far more freedom of manoeuvre; they can fire it from anywhere within a 360 degree radius of that contact point and therefore they’ve got lots more escape routes and everything else required.

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But of course we then bring in jamming equipment, counter-measures to prevent that attack signal from actually reaching the receiver and therefore detonating the device.  So, once we bring in that as a successful counter-measure – it’s been reeled out across the Force – they then have to effectively come up with another means to try and overmatch that.  That may be using different frequencies, it may be using a number of options and certainly in some of the things we’ve seen like the use of a radio-control armed victim operated device; effectively a booby trap that is in a disarmed state so normal traffic can pass over it freely, but when a military patrol is seen to be approaching it will then be armed by radio-control, outside the range of any protective counter-measures. Then, once the patrol drives over that, obviously because it’s armed it will then detonate.

So we then bring in search teams to go and find those.  In the case ofAfghanistan, that was the sort of evolution that we saw and once the search team came in and they were able to successfully identify where those IEDs were they then had to switch to another means.  Because they could see that we were identifying the metal content, in terms of the fragmentation that was in those they then started using low metal content IEDs and therefore we’ve then got to refine our tactics, techniques and procedures again, so we use explosive search dogs and ground penetrating radar.

And you can see that across the country they may not have a specific capability to overmatch the IED at that point in time and therefore the insurgent will continue to use that type of IED but as soon as that counter-measure has reached that part of the country and effectively nullifies that type of IED there, then they’ll move on to the new type.

What does that mean for technology in terms of having to adapt and what we have today at hand, is there anything out there that’s impressing you in terms of GPRs or devices we’re seeing here like [Northrop Grumman’s UGV] Wheelbarrow? What’s the future of technology in this?

Well, that is the million dollar question, and as every counter-IED specialist will say, there is no silver bullet.  What you have to do is go for that combined eclectic response, and certainly the strategy that is being used at the moment – defeat the device, attack the network, prepare the Force – it effectively covers all the bases.  But, if you’re talking about the defeat the device piece where we are looking at technologies to detect and neutralise those devices, we have to really focus on multi-sensor technologies.

And the reason for that is that many companies out there in industry will identify a product that they think will help and assist.  And there’s that classic maxim in business; make what you can sell, don’t sell what you can make. Quite often companies in defence will have a product and they’ll think, yes this is brilliant.  For example, it’s an explosive detector… but actually… does it detect the metallic content, does it detect buried IEDs, does it detect the electronics?

And so if you roll out a platform that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars but it only has an explosive detector on it, it’s not actually going to be a Force multiplier.  But if you have something that has an explosive detector and metal detector fragmentation, an electronic circuit detector, you can already see then that you’re starting to have a number of fail-safes built in and crucially you’re more likely to confirm and find that IED rather than having a series of false alarms.

That is the one thing that industry really could do better because they do have so many resources available to them, is collaborative projects and also using multi-sensor technologies to really provide the gold-plated solution.

So that’s technology, but just very quickly touching on the TTPs again; I’m presuming just from what you’ve said that your thoughts are more towards that left-of-the-boom strategy – we should be doing perhaps a bit more in terms of breaking down the social network.  In a practical sense what would that mean?

It means a very concerted intelligence effort, multiple fused intelligence sources and by that I mean everything from human intelligence right the way through to signals intelligence, all those different aspects. And fusing all those different sources of intelligence together to get the best possible and most accurate intelligence picture, and then being able to decide and act in a very, very speedy manner. We call it the ‘OODA’; the Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act cycle.  And effectively the enemy has the same cycle as us but we have to basically get round that cycle far more quickly than the enemy does.

Therefore, we’ve got to have the best possible information, the most accurate information and then we’ve got to use that information and decide and act very, very quickly and, crucially, far more quickly than the enemy.

Very well put, just on a final note, I know you’ve got quite often a lot of projects going on, is there anything you would want to tell us about, communicate with the international defence community, anything we should be looking out for?

I just think that anybody out there who’s got any sort of product or service or capability that they think may even vaguely potentially save people’s lives or assist in a detection defeat, neutralisation of IEDs, or indeed any of the wider intelligence piece, they really must get it out there, get it seen and start contacting the counter-IED forces to make sure that it’s all considered and those particular technologies can be fused into the existing effort.

Chris Hunter is a supporter of the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association, a registered charity that accepts online donations. His latest book Extreme Risk is available on Amazon.

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