PINAL AIRPARK, MARANA, Ariz. - Soldiers from the 71st Ordnance Group (EOD) joined military and civilian bomb squads to assess and defeat improvised explosive devices at Raven's Challenge XII, March 19-23.
The 16 Soldiers from five explosive ordnance companies were part of the 100 explosive ordnance disposal technicians presented with multiple training scenarios with exercise explosive devices in homes, desert shacks, and airplane cargo and passenger areas. Every scenario required military and civilian bomb squads to work together work together to plan a response to investigate, render safe and dispose of a device by detonation. Located 40 miles northwest of Tucson, the exercise area covered 2,100 desert acres. Pinal Airpark, a boneyard for commercial aircraft, is also a former military installation now used for Army Air National Guard training. The exercise planners from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms created multiple realistic training scenarios for each military/civilian team to defeat.
The Raven's Challenge mission is to conduct an international level, full-scale, live-fire, counter-IED operational exercise with participation from military EOD and civilian public safety bomb squads. Each event provided the opportunity to coalesce as a team, develop a plan and respond to an IED problem set.
Command Sgt. Maj. Johnny Strickland, command sergeant major for the 71st Ord. Group (EOD) at Fort Carson, Colo., said, "The value of this training is working with civilian organizations, utilizing different equipment and getting to see a wider array of methods to conduct procedures. There are many ways to solve an IED incident, and each integrated team brings different experiences to accomplish the mission."
Exercise IEDs were placed in aircraft passenger and cargo areas, building entrances, darkened rooms and desert shacks. A combined military/civilian team had to identify the device using their training, equipment and experience, and then create a plan to render the device safe.
There were 16 teams and 16 problem scenarios. Safety was paramount - a radio net was established for constant communication throughout the exercise area.
Once the device was rendered safe, it was transported out into the desert where an actual small explosive device would be added. "Fire in the hole" (yelled loudly three times) was followed by explosions that echoed across the desert multiple times every day as exercise IEDs were destroyed by remote control. The teams would then examine the debris for technical and intelligence information.
"Our civilian counterpart was from the fantastic bomb squad from Dona Ana County in New Mexico," said 1st Lt. Shun Hsu, a native of Las Vegas, Nev., serving with the 787th Ord. Company, 3rd Ord. Battalion stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash. "The most valuable thing we learned from our counterpart is the skill of evidence gathering and preservation, as evidence is the most important thing in the U.S. justice system."
One scenario in a 747 aircraft involved finding an IED in the large passenger area - the object was in a diaper bag. Sweating under an 80-pound bomb suit, Staff Sgt. Michael Sprouse from San Diego, Calif., an EOD team leader with the 741st Ord. Co., 3rd Ord. Bn., at Fort Bliss, Texas, worked with Capt. Jon Day from the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office.
"Getting to work with these guys is important to see their tactics, techniques and procedures," said Sprouse.
Teams used a variety of equipment including small x-ray machines, disruptors (a ballistic shell with water or other material sent into the IED), bomb suits, portable x-ray machines that vary in size from a laptop computer to a piece of luggage, common hand tools and flashlights.
The battery-powered robots, produced by commercial firms, had adjustable clamps and other hardware that enabled them to investigate the target. They maneuvered with both rubber wheels and tracks and varied in size from the size of a backpack to one that is the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. The robots had the ability to climb stairs, depending on the angle, and included both audio and video capability to relay data to their operator located a safe distance from the device. "Go remote and stay remote" is a phrase employed by the teams to use the robots for up-close viewing of a device to understand its composition and aid in the operational plan to render it safe.
Army 1st Lt. Jacob Randazzo, from Durham, Conn., said, "No solution to an IED problem is simple, easy or fast." Each Raven's Challenge scenario took teams three to four hours to assess, plan and act. Every scenario was conducted under the watchful eye of an experienced EOD observer/controller.
A key component to every Raven's Challenge problem set was interoperability between the military and civilian bomb squads. For example, Randazzo and Spc. Daniel Somerville, from Waco, Texas, both from the 630th Ord. Co., 242nd Ordnance Bn. at Fort Riley, Kan., were paired with a team from the Nebraska State Patrol, a public safety bomb squad they might work with to solve an actual IED problem in their geographic area.
The teams, which were not graded, could complete the mission in a variety of ways - they had to investigate to find the device (usually with a robot), use their training and experience and equipment to formulate a plan, and agree on what they would do and how they would to it, and who would go "down range" to the device.
The 741st and 787th Ord. Companies were paired with bomb squad technicians from the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Department Bomb Squad; the 630th Ord. Co. worked with a team from the Nebraska State Police; the 53rd Ord. Co., stationed at Yakima Training Center, Wash., was paired with the Pima County (Arizona) Regional Bomb Squad; and the 749th Ord. Co., 242nd Ordnance Bn. at Fort Carson, Colo., worked with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
International teams from NATO partners Belgium and Portugal worked with EOD technicians from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base while police from Mexico served as observers. The Navy and Marine Corps also had teams in the exercise.
The 71st leadership was impressed with the interoperability of the various teams and agencies which worked together during the exercise.
"I had a great opportunity to observe Army EOD teams work with bomb technicians from numerous state and local agencies. Raven's Challenge personnel developed complex training scenarios that challenged each team," said Strickland, who resides from Fairmont, N.C. "These scenarios forced cross talk and teamwork to determine the best way to solve the problem.
"In my opinion, EOD teams from the 71st Ordnance Group (EOD) were able to learn various approaches to solving problems, see demonstrations of different C-IED equipment and explosives, and operate in a safe training area which allowed them to develop critical skills."
Three more Raven's Challenge events are planned in 2018. The different locations (Mississippi, Indiana and West Virginia) will allow regional public safety bomb squads the opportunity to participate in this national-level training.