Every improvised explosive device (IED) has its own unique signature and it takes an expert in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) to understand their intricacies. As technology relentlessly advances, there is a need for counter-IED (C-IED) training to keep pace with new threats as they evolve. As NATO shifts its focus from operational engagement to operational preparedness in 2014, it is set to focus more on training activities, among which C-IED will no doubt remain an important element.

The need to focus on the threat of IEDs is, in part, due to improvements in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) technology, which offers enhanced capability to see attackers and target them. As a result, militants have turned more often to IEDs as a form of remote ambush, as they do not have to be present when the attack occurs and, therefore, do not immediately become targets.

When it comes to C-IED training, Robert Shaw knows more than most about what is required, having previously been head of C-IED training at NATO ISAF and now running EOD and C-IED training company Optimal Risk. While he recognises that the technology behind IEDs is becoming more sophisticated, at a fundamental level the threat is the same as it ever was.

"IEDs are just another weapons system," says Shaw. "There are 12 versions of the AK rifle, but generically they are still just assault rifles, so they have not developed significantly over the long term. The same is true of IEDs, which have been around since the invention of dynamite. Car bombs were used in Wall Street in the 1920s, and the first use of IEDs was in South Africa, where they were made from dynamite and components of the Martini-Henry rifle. The technology changes over time, as all weapons do, to suit the available technology, the ground and the campaign."

"Each IED campaign is unique, and if new technology is available, then the terrorist will use it, but the technology evolves slowly. Time-command victim-operated switches are used all over the world, but the tactics and the way such technology is used will vary by country. Devices reflect the resources and training of the bombmaker and the nature of the target."

"The need to focus on the threat of IEDs is, in part, due to improvements in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) technology."

As an example, Shaw points out that if armoured vehicles are chosen as targets then an IED would require a type of explosively formed penetrator (EFP). A militant might once have been more likely to use a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), which would mean being present and, therefore, becoming an immediate target. Now, a device with a remote control (RC) switch might be more common, though electronic countermeasures (ECM) would normally cover that threat.

"Tactically, things can change quickly, but, from a strategic perspective, IEDs have been around for ages," says Shaw. "Battery technology is better, there are new types of plastic explosive and RC switch, and there is more use of mobile phone technology to trigger devices, but evolution of the technology has happened steadily over 100 years. In terms of training this means that technology is not necessarily the main focus. In that respect, training follows the same fundamental principles as ever.

"For instance, EOD experts trained in the 1980s in Northern Ireland would go to Iraq and use the same skills. What changes is that those skills must be matched to the ground. In Northern Ireland, for instance, it is easy to get around, as there are paved roads everywhere. But if you set out from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan you would travel by helicopter, which means you can’t take a big robot with you. If you have to swim rivers to get to your destination then you would have to do so without a bomb disposal suit."

Understanding culture and context

C-IED training is less about keeping pace with rapid technological change than it is about understanding the context in which an IED has been deployed. It is about understanding the demands of the terrain, which might force a threat to be faced with minimal kit that can be carried overland on foot. Another key factor is to know how to gain insight into the intentions of the bombmaker, who may have constructed an IED in such a way as to be a trap for the EOD operative as much as for any other target.

"The basic principles of training from Northern Ireland would apply, but then there is specific training for the setting," says Shaw. "If you have to fit all your kit into four Bergens [a type of rucksack] then you will leave behind some of the ‘nice-to-have’ items and just take the essentials. Training will include a briefing on the technology in the same way as usual, as long as ECM covers the technology involved.

"Training is more about understanding the story of the situation and the setting. Everywhere is a ‘high threat’ location now, including homelands in Europe, which means that EOD operatives are sometimes the intended targets. A four-man cell in Bradford could use the same tactics and booby traps as are used in Afghanistan. That is why training is about situational awareness, context and terrain. EOD operators from the UK might be used to the tactics of the IRA, which is one reason that the UK lost fewer EOD operatives than the US, which took a very technology-based approach."

What British Army EOD operatives may have over colleagues that have been trained to focus mainly on the technological aspects of IEDs is experience. To be adept at EOD requires a certain aptitude and attitude, but it is experience and instinct that really counts in the field, and that comes through training and experience.

"There is always a marked difference between the training environment and the setting in which the skills learnt there are applied."

Perhaps the most valuable skill that training can instil is the ability to understand the mindset of the enemy and the intentions of the bombmaker.

"The army is keeping its cultural support unit after operations in Afghanistan because it knows the importance of understanding the context," says Shaw. "Intelligence is what beats the IED because it informs the response of the EOD team. If you deal with one IED you don’t stop the problem because what you really need to do is beat the network behind it, and that is where intelligence comes in."

Intelligence comes in many forms. It is gleaned from the forensics performed on IEDs, from information on captured computers, from the interrogation of detainees and from an understanding of the cultural context in which a campaign is taking place. EOD operatives can reduce the risk to themselves if they can spot whether they are the intended targets. That kind of insight comes with extensive training that looks beyond the technical aspects of a device.

"The focus of training is on reducing the risk of EOD operatives becoming casualties. It is about getting inside the mind of the bombmaker," says Shaw. "Bear in mind that one in five Palestinian bombmakers are killed by their own bombs. No one likes making them because it is a dangerous game, and it helps an EOD operative to understand that," explains Shaw.

"Understanding the context in which a device is constructed gives you some insight into the mind of the person who made it, which enables you to perceive the nature of the threat better. An EOD needs to have an understanding that goes beyond the technical layout of the device. You need wisdom as well as knowledge."

There is always a marked difference between the training environment and the setting in which the skills learnt there are applied. Shaw has worked in the UK’s training facilities and notes the emphasis on making training operations as realistic as possible – so much so that much of it is conducted in a mock-up of a village that provides as realistic a setting as possible for trainees.

Over the years, Shaw has come to understand that learnt skills are often applied in the field as much by instinct as by analysis. That is why so much stress is put on the need to understand contextual factors at a fundamental level. Technical knowledge is a given for EOD operatives, but it is what Shaw refers to as wisdom rather than knowledge that often determines the outcome of C-IED operations.

"There is a Norwegian saying that goes: ‘there is no such thing as the combat fairy’," he says. "What it means is that in combat no one turns up to make you suddenly superhuman or to give you an endless supply of ammunition. Combat is not like a video game. When you are tired or stressed, you fall back on your most basic level of training, so that has to be good enough for whatever situation you are in."