Attrition: Too Much Action

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October 17,2008:  The U.S. Air Force is going to spend an additional $3.5 million a year for the next five years, in an effort to keep its EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) force from fading away. Most of the money will go to larger reenlistment bonuses. But there are also additional special duty pay for those operating in a combat zone (from $150 to $375, according to rank). In the last six years, the reenlistment rate for these specialists has declined 30 percent. Mainly because air force EOD techs can get better paid, and safer, jobs in the civilian sector. Too many tours in a combat zone isn't good for family life either. It's not that air force EOD folks don't want to do the work, but what they joined for was to do air force EOD, not the army type stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doing a tour with the army once or twice is interesting, but doing it again and again is bad for morale. Air force EOD is about dealing with aircraft bombs gone bad, or the occasional old buried bomb that gets discovered, and needs to be taken care of. All those roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan get on your nerves after a while.

The U.S. military, in general, is having a hard time keeping its EOD force (of about 5,000 technicians) up to strength. Part of the problem has been casualties. Since September 11, 2001, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 56 EOD techs, and put several hundred out of the business because of injuries. Many more have left the service when their time was up. But the biggest problem is getting experienced EOD techs to stay in uniform.

About a thousand new EOD techs are trained each year (after surviving a 30-35 percent failure rate in school). The Department of Defense has one EOD school, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Each service has special EOD needs that they take care of themselves (navy techs, for example, have to sometimes work under water, so they also go to diving school.) The thousands of combat experienced EOD techs have left the military in the past five years has been a boon for municipalities and security firms looking for such people. The civilian jobs pay more, and are not as dangerous.

While the military expects many of the newly trained techs to get out after four years, they try real hard to hang on to the leaders (officers and senior NCOs) of EOD teams (who are also techs). They are offered bonuses that add up to, in some cases, over $25,000 a year. There are also several different bonuses paid to EOD techs operating in a combat zone. There, EOD teams (usually eight people) can average 3-4 calls a day, and lots of stress. You really work for the few hundred extra dollars a month (it varies by service, a sore point in the EOD community).

Because of new technology, the job is actually a lot less dangerous than in the past. The widespread use of special robots, which use a video camera and a mechanical arm to allow the EOD technician to examine, and even disarm, an IED (improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb) from a distance, is the most visible new technology. But there are also new electronic devices, which enable EOD techs to prevent wireless detonators on IEDs from going off. Details of many of the new EOD electronic tools are kept secret, since the enemy can develop countermeasures if they know too much about what EOD has in their tool kit. The EOD technicians have also found remote control toy trucks useful, for delivering explosives to an IED that could not be disarmed, and appears to still be under the control of enemy operators. The toy truck carries an explosive charge, and a wireless detonator, to destroy the IED. If the hidden enemy can see all this, and decides to set off the IED as the toy truck approaches, the EOD team has prevented the loss of a hundred thousand dollar robot, in exchange for a hundred dollar toy truck.

For two years, from late 2005 to late 2007, the use of IEDs skyrocketed. The U.S. Army EOD teams were overwhelmed, and this is when the air force and navy sent nearly half their EOD techs to help out. Still, the waiting time for an EOD team went from 20 minutes in early 2005, to several hours a year later. To help ease the strain on EOD, robots were handed out to combat and transportation units, with instructions on how to use the simpler methods of dealing with IEDs (aside from taking your troops around it, you can use the robot to look closely at the suspicious object, and if it is an IED, have the robot drop some explosives, move the droid away and blow the sucker up.)

Another solution was training local troops to handle EOD work. Training Iraqi EOD teams took time, even if they had already done that job in the old Iraqi army. Seems that the old Iraqi army EOD standards were quite a bit different, and more dangerous. So lots of retraining was needed. The Iraqi EOD specialists don't mind, because they get the American robots and some of the other gear, to use. This makes their work a lot safer, and they need all the help they can get. As more Iraqi troops take control of security in parts of central Iraq (where nearly all the IED activity has been), the Iraqis get hit with more IEDs. Indeed, the terrorists and anti-government forces often concentrated on the Iraqi army and police., hitting them with lots of IEDs, believing they would be easier targets than the Americans. Didn't turn out that way, as the Iraqi security forces spoke the language, and had an easier time spotting IEDs, or getting advance warning from local civilians.

Since the Surge Offensive of 2007, the enemy IED campaign has basically collapsed. There are still IEDs out there, but far fewer (as in over 80 percent fewer). Still, the U.S. Army wants to double the number of new EOD techs it sends through the Elgin school, for a while anyway, so as to give the weary EOD tech veterans of Iraq, 2005-7, some more rest. That would increase the annual U.S. output to 1,500 EOD technicians.

All the services have been encouraging more troops to volunteer for EOD school. To that end, all but the marines have waived, for the moment, the old requirement that you needed at least two years to active service (to make sure you had your basic military discipline habits down cold) before going to EOD school. Now, many EOD students are right out of basic. The attrition (in the school) is a little higher with these kids, but they do about the same as everyone else once they get through EOD school.

American EOD has been dramatically changed by the war on terror, and has become a much more high tech, and combat experienced, force. Never before has EOD been showered with so much money and resources to develop new equipment. They are making the most of it, because they know that, once Iraq and Afghanistan settle down, their budget will shrink dramatically.

 


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