Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 11:20 UK

Tackling Taliban's deadliest weapon

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News


Afghan insurgents filmed planting a bomb which then detonates

Improvised explosive devices - IEDs - are the deadliest threat facing British forces in Afghanistan, and more resources than ever are being deployed to limit the threat of the Taliban's tactic of choice.

The bleak and windswept land with its thin tufts of grass is criss-crossed with wires and oblong packages half-hidden in holes in the ground. We are warned not to get too close - the ground beneath our feet is riddled with explosives.

This is not Helmand, but Shoeburyness, Essex, where British army bomb disposal experts are doing their final training before they deploy to Afghanistan later this month with 11 Brigade.


Training to counter this threat has increased markedly over the past months, not only for bomb disposal experts but also for ordinary soldiers now acquiring more specialised counter-IED knowledge as part of basic training.

Just a few minutes later, when we are 100 yards (90m) or so away inside a concrete building, the earth shakes and a blast wave hits us. An enormous plume of smoke rises in the grey skies.

The men from 33 Engineer EOD Regiment have successfully blown up the devices.

Bigger bombs

This time they laid the bombs themselves, but in a few weeks' time these specialists will be doing this for real.

In one of the most dangerous jobs on the frontline, they will be steeling themselves on a daily basis to approach the Taliban's most successful weapon - and working out how best to defuse or destroy it.

Anyone who says they aren't nervous when they're walking up to a live device would be a bit of a fool
PO Diver Jai Gardner

They will do so knowing that more than 75% of the soldiers killed this year in Helmand have died as a result of IEDs, including some bomb disposal experts.

Incidents involving makeshift bombs have increased by 114% this year in Helmand, even though the MoD says more of the devices are being found and defused.

As British forces employ more heavily-armoured vehicles to protect them as they move around, the Taliban have reacted with bigger bombs, or use of multiple IEDs aimed at trapping soldiers trying to rescue injured comrades.

Col Christopher Claydon, assistant head of force protection at the MoD, is one of those tasked with defeating the Taliban's weapon of choice.

"It is defence's highest priority at the moment," he says. "I can't go into the exact details of equipment or even numbers, but we are pretty much resource-unlimited in this area."

Bringing in better armour for vehicles is only one aspect of tackling the threat, he says.

Roadside bomb blast site in Afghanistan
IEDs' threat hampers Nato and Afghan troops' ability to dominate the ground

"We counter it on three levels. There's the 'defeat the device' level. The other aspect is preparing the force to identify and cope with the threats as they come across it," says Col Claydon.

"And the third level is an offensive capability, where we attack the enemy systems and the networks involved in IEDs both from the man placing it through to the finances."

The key aim is what he calls "getting left of the bang": preventing the devices being made or planted in the first place, which demands better intelligence and disruption of the Taliban's finance and other networks.

In a country racked by war for more than three decades, though, the raw materials for bomb-making are easy to find.

Access to mobile phones and basic technology means that these simple makeshift devices are more effective than ever, with insurgent bomb-makers learning rapidly just how much explosive is needed to maim or kill, or to strike even the best-protected vehicles, and also working out how Nato forces react to the devices, to refine where and how they are placed.

Increased surveillance from the air - using unmanned aerial vehicles such as Reaper and Predator - is helping counter the threat, while more intelligence analysts are being deployed to interpret the material gained from the air and on the ground.

Remarkably sanguine

The former head of the Army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, returned from his last trip to Helmand with what he called a "shopping list" of requirements aimed squarely at combating the threat from IEDs.

His successor Gen Sir David Richards is likely to be just as focused on defeating the insurgents' low-tech but effective threat to the West's high-tech armies.

Remarkably, the men training here at Shoeburyness are sanguine about the risks they will soon be facing.

It's a relatively simple weapon for the enemy to use at the least risk to them
Col Christopher Claydon

"It's the ideal job for a lad. Come here and blow stuff up - it doesn't get better than that, really," says L/Cpl Mark Hardman with a smile. "It is a dangerous job, but we've all done a lot of training so we know what we're doing. We should be fine."

But there is no underestimation of the enemy, with L/Cpl Mark Hardman adding: "There's been a lot of casualties in the past couple of weeks, so they're not stupid."

PO Diver Jai Gardner is normally based at Faslane with the Royal Navy's Northern Diving Group, but will deploy to Helmand with the rest of 49 Field Squadron from 33 Engineer EOD Regiment following six months of training.

"I think anyone who says they aren't nervous when they're walking up to a live device would be a bit of a fool," he tells me.

"But at the end of the day it's our job and we're used to dealing with them so we just crack on - and the training has been comprehensive."

Afghans' insecurity

Capt Gareth Bateman, second in command of 49 Field Squadron, says the biggest strain can be on the families who are left behind.

"Sometimes families don't necessarily understand some of the training the guys have gone through, and don't understand how well prepared they are when they're only seeing the casualties reported," he says.

The squadron are looking forward to putting their skills into practice, he says.

"It's very difficult to explain to somebody who hasn't been through it, but by the time we get back in six months there's a bond between us that you just can't compare to anything else."

The summer has seen more than 50 British soldiers killed by IEDs and many more wounded.

And the devices have a wider impact, reducing Nato forces' and the Afghan Army's ability to manoeuvre or dominate the ground, and - crucially - undermining public support back at home in Britain and the US, while increasing ordinary Afghans' sense of insecurity.

"They are a successful weapon and historically they always have been," says Col Claydon.

"It's a relatively simple weapon for the enemy to use at the least risk to them, and as a result it's quite difficult to counter - but we do have the systems in place now which are developing further to help counter that threat."

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