Wednesday, November 4, 2009

IEDs main threat to troops in Afghanistan

The main threat to British soldiers in Afghanistan comes not from suicide bombers or gunfire but from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

A rifle might be the soldier’s constant companion but a keen pair of eyes is just as likely to keep him safe.

Over the summer more than 1,800 of the makeshift bombs were uncovered in Helmand province where the British are fighting.

And most of the 224 British fatalities suffered since the start of operations in 2001 have been the result of such bombs.

On Saturday bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of the Royal Logistic Corps, was killed by an IED near Sangin as he and his team tried to make the device safe.

During his five months in Afghanistan the 30-year-old disarmed a total of 64 IEDs.

As the commander of a bomb disposal team he was at the forefront of the fight against the Taliban.

But every soldier who arrives to serve in Afghanistan must undergo training to deal with the threat from hidden bombs.

During the one-day refresher course they simulate situations where they may have to search for bombs, such as when patrols need to cross vulnerable areas.

The soldiers use a vallon or metal detector to search for devices buried beneath the surface, lying face down on the dust using their eyes and fingertips to confirm a threat.

Captain Gareth Bateman is second in command of the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (JFEOD) Group, which is part of the Counter IED Task Force.

The Task Force was introduced in October to help better co-ordinate the battle against IEDs.

Capt Bateman, 28, from Radyr in Cardiff, said the training was “absolutely vital”.

“That is why every soldier that comes into theatre goes through this package.

“It’s a basic skill but when it’s used properly it’s absolutely life saving.”

As dozens of newly-arrived soldiers practised using the metal detectors across lanes of desert sand, he added: “The equipment we use can only give a certain level of assurance and after that you need to use your eyes and your brain.”

Once a device has been discovered the soldiers will mark out the danger area.

Across the training ground Lieutenant Paul Lewsey, 25, from Ashtead in Surrey, was leading a search team as they approached a compound.

The search teams work hand in hand with IED disposal operators who are often called in to deal with a threat which has already been discovered.

Lt Lewsey, a Royal Engineers Search Adviser, said his role could also include advising his superiors on how to ensure an area was clear, for example if a meeting was to be held.

Asked about the importance of the anti-IED training he said: “Eighty per cent of our casualties are coming from IEDs.

“You carry a rifle as a secondary means of defence but out here your main means of defence is searching every step you take.”

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