The Thai Way: C-IED and EOD Capital Teaching U.S. Soldiers

Contributor:  Al Johnson
Posted:  12/13/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   CIED | Countering IED | EOD | RISC

Thailand has had a continuous IED insurgency in its southern provinces since 2003.  At times it exceeded the volume of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this interview, Al Johnson, Manager of Operations, RISC Management, examines the various lessons being learned and applied from countering IEDs in Thailand, the technologies and procedures that are defusing these weapons, and discusses the importance of working with local law enforcement as well as with international partners. Read on…

Highlight some of the main lessons learned in Thailand these past few months and how they were applied to protecting the population from the IED threat? Specifically you told IDGA when we last spoke that ‘empowering the local response community with the skill sets required to understand and manage the IED threat is critical in today’s CIED effort domestically’ explain how this is being achieved…

Thailand has had a continuous IED insurgency in its southern provinces since 2003.  At times it exceeded the volume of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, the Thais did not have the extensive resources that the Coalition was able to bring to bear in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Also from the outset; the Thais had to operate within very restrictive boundaries of domestic law, unlike the first half of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and more closely resembling the US domestic response conditions.  These parallels are what we looked at as they were a closer parallel to the US paradigm than Iraq or Afghanistan.  Further, the Thai lack of equipment and resources mirrored many municipalities in the US, where sadly, despite Billions of dollars spent on Homeland Security projects, very little has reached some critical areas having been either diverted or utilized in a way that was not effective vs. the IED threat. 

So when we looked at Thailand, we saw what worked and what didn’t with a view to how this could assist analysis of the domestic US and in some ways US military C-IED community. 

Recently, Thailand was able to realize at multiple levels the integration of many different programs and institutionalized the skill sets among many of its personnel that allowed an effective CIED program in some areas.

Notable among the reasons for the success was the training and implementation of search.  The initial concept was developed by the British during the “Troubles” (or “Cause” depending on your color preference), and later modified by the US Military into the Tactical Site Exploitation (TSE) concept for training to US Soldiers, Marines and Airmen that operate overseas.  The importance of this program was that every soldier (and by extension in a civil society policemen, security guard, teacher, etc) is a sensor and can collectively detect and report far more efficiently a wider area than a few personnel that are limited in their reach.    The Thais received a modified version of both that we developed to take advantage of their larger manpower pool (security guards at every building, larger security details on EOD teams, etc.) and lack of sophisticated and expensive equipment.  The process enabled the Thais to incorporate these techniques into their normal operations that increased the IED detection rate and reduced the effective attacks by IEDs against first responders. 

The community involvement and IED awareness and especially search training allowed a capability improvement that would be impossible otherwise.  This is something the US should take note of. 

However, we also began to note that as the smaller 10k to 20k IEDs that were designed to kill police, first responders, and forensics personnel were being detected and successfully rendered safe, there was a transition by the insurgency to larger devices such as VBIEDs that were placed in narrow shopping areas to inflict mass casualties against a broad range of targets by a delivery method that was easily deployed and hard to detect in time.

The reason for the shift may not totally have been due to the increased effectiveness of the Thais as countering the previous tactics, and may have also been a change in targets, but it was risky.  Attacks against a large section of the civilian population threatened to isolate the separatist Muslim groups from the people they were intending to influence and gain support.  So the verdict is still out as to why they change in tactics, but there is evidence to suggest that it might be due to the weakening effectiveness of the insurgent IEDs vs. a very robust search program by the Thais, a testament to the success but also a stark warning regarding the untended consequences of that success.

Integration of agencies efforts in Thailand was a long term goal that is now beginning to be realized.  In Thailand, as in any country, there are barriers due to jurisdiction and politics.  In Thailand the Army and Police are famous for their antipathy towards each other.  Therefore sharing of information, resources, and support was difficult at times.  However, with a stronger REGIONAL and LOCAL consolidation of resources combined with a National guidance and support, the effectiveness of the local EOD teams has increased.  We will be working on a project soon to help transition a number of military EOD techs into the police EOD ranks.  Something unheard of only a few years ago and a very hopeful sign of a trend.   

Finally, the training and structure of the foremost civilian EOD units, notably the Bangkok Royal Police Bomb Squad, and many units in Yala, Naratiwat, and Patthani, have integrated a dedicated security/search team, increased the EOD support unit numbers to allow for handling of complex IED scenes, and have a focus on forensic collection and preservation training among all members.   A recent focus on training and fielding K9 units in larger numbers to augment search reflects the realization that this tool of detection is a capability enhancer at relatively low cost.  (The Thais are painfully aware of the dangers of procuring high dollar “miracle tools” after the disastrous purchase of the Mole 2000 which essentially was a divining rod made out of a car antenna, and the US surveillance blimp that spent months in a hanger and leaked without even flying once).

Search techniques, adapted to the Thai operational paradigm and implemented at all levels have proved to be the most cost efficient and effective technique to combating the IED threat combined with a focus on reliable high tech systems at the “boots on the ground” level.

The above are examples of what the Thais have done right in this regard, yet there are things that the US can learn from their mistakes as well.  A lack of a central training school for the IED training is proving to be problematic.  Standards of training require inordinate amount of traveling, negotiating, and retraining to achieve even a small amount of parity where it is needed.  A centralized IED Center of Excellence is in the future, but it is coming about slowly.  Currently each branch has its own training area and the police train locally. 

Equipment procurement runs parallel to the US model.  High tech equipment with no budget or support structure for maintenance and calibration is worthless.  Just like in the US where many civilian bomb squads were given chemical protective and detection equipment but no follow on budget for maintenance, the Thais periodically receive robots, detection equipment, etc, but no follow on budget for repairs and calibration.  The time and resources lost on these dead end solutions could have been spent better on a program that will continue to be effective regardless of sustainment budget, such as training or a COTS system.  Bangkok PD is still very proud of their TALON robot, even though it hasn’t been fixed in 3 years.  Equipment designed for not only Thailand, but many other nations in difficult operating environments must be designed and built to last.  The production model that works for the US and other high resourced nations does not work for those nations where resourcing does not reach our levels.  They can not afford to replace or repair an item with a lifespan less than 5 or 6 years.

The US can learn from the Thai integration of awareness and search at all levels.  Too many times in the US (as illustrated by the November 15th wave of bomb threat calls to courthouses in Washington State), the procedure in America is to evacuate the building and rely on the police to search.  An unknown environment and untrained personnel (many times the US first responders have not received any training in search, and very basic and outdated IED information) create a very low probability that the IED if present will be detected.  The Golden Rule of “Those who work the building search the building” which has become the norm in the IED plagued areas in Southern Thailand is almost completely absent in the US, yet this is perhaps the easiest element to incorporate with some training and a policy write up at the individual institutions.

In the US, jurisdictional issues still present themselves as the readers are most likely intimately aware.  As one example it is impossible for a recently discharged US Military EOD technician with hundreds of IEDs under his belt and a wealth of information on successful CIED techniques to integrate into a civilian bomb squad without being a patrolman for a few years then waiting in line for a slot into the HDS school which is only a recap of the training he received.  The US is missing the opportunity to cross level valuable skill sets and information immediately into the very area where vulnerabilities have been identified.  The US needs to understand from the lessons in Thailand, that an IED insurgency does not follow a predictable model and can escalate in both technical complexity and frequency very quickly.  Without a good framework in place in the US, the casualties from perhaps preventable mistakes will be sadly too high.

 

Discuss the relationship between low tech (poles with sickle at the end) vs. high tech (electronic jammers) eod/ied solutions.

The Thais have been able to validate many procedures and methods using only the low tech solutions.  However, without specific high tech solutions such as “electronic jammers”, the methods are not as safe or as effective as they can be, and the insurgency constantly exploits these gaps with sometimes deadly effect. 

Despite their proficiency with low tech procedures such as hook and line, hand entry, and limited precision disruption methods, the Thais recognize that in a modern IED environment a few high tech solutions are absolutely essential:  Jammers, robotic platforms, and detection and analytic equipment. 

Jammers seem to be the number one priority as a majority of the lethal devices are command detonated by RC.  Not as restricted to the frequency mandates and regulation as the US FCC imposes on the domestic market, the Thais are open for a reliable system that can operate both at the individual and wider area level such as vehicle mounted.

Robotic capability is next on the list, and not only in EOD robots, but UAV capability to survey wide areas for IED emplaces as an example.  With a variety of terrain from Urban to Jungle to roads along rolling plains; the need for a UAV capability is a requirement that the Thais are increasingly wanting, with current UAV capability being looked at by the Thai Defense Technology Institute (DTI) a governmental/private joint agency.  The recent purchase of the surveillance blimp however, has again highlighted and jaded the Thais to big ticket items without a liaison, training program, and service schedule attached. 

Detection and interrogation technology such as X Rays, enzymatic Home Made Explosive (HME), ION scanners, and other explosive detection and test kits is another requirement the Thais have identified as critical for their safe and effective operations in the IED conflict in the South.  With narcotics prevalent throughout Thailand there is a large need to separate these from explosives at the local level without having to wait for weeks for a central lab to determine the unknown substance.

Finally, protective gear.  The Thais have a few bomb suits, and most donated via US law enforcement and State Department.  These, while a noble gesture, are ill fitting for Thai physiology, and a lightweight bomb suit that is more in line with SE Asian body types is needed.  We are working on a project with other partners to develop a more reliable bomb suit for operations by Thais and others in SE Asia, that will help reduce fatigue due to weight and constriction, and thereby improve overall safety due to the ability of the operator to maintain situational awareness during EOD operations.  In addition, the support personnel require body armor that is lightweight, fire resistant, and does not absorb water in the tropical climate.

 

Explore the ways in which the US currently works with the Thais and local law enforcement, what else can be done?

The US Army has a presence in Thailand for decades under the JUSMAGTHAI (Joint US Military Assistance Group Thailand) umbrella.  Many joint training operations are conducted every year with Cobra Gold, Teak Tiger, etc.  The partnership has been invaluable, and for a time, there was a very healthy amount of synergy between JUSMAGTHAI and the US State Department/Embassy Force Protection Detachment (FPD) Thailand in EOD and C-IED exchanges.  However, these were short lived and efforts to institutionalize them never materialized.  Further, efforts to incorporate real CIED/EOD exchanges into events such as Cobra Gold have not worked to the extent that the military EOD forces are either not present, or provided missions that do not focus on C-IED events and when they are, are watered down as to be ineffective.  There needs to be a single coordinating effort between JUSMAGTHAI / PACOM / US Department of State to leverage all existing assets in exchanges with the Thais and incorporating these into existing exercises between the two nations.

One of the most important actions the US military can do is to provide a long term EOD liaison in Thailand for EOD/C-IED.  This will help to remedy the mixed bag of offerings the Thais have been receiving and help to focus US resources during a time of reduced budgets.

Industry has a golden opportunity to assist not only Thailand, but other ASEAN partners as well, as the IED threat is manifest in many nations in the region, by being able to take existing technologies and solutions, and understanding how to modify them to the SE Asian operator and environment.  In many cases this is providing a different housing structure to focus on waterproofing while maintaining cool operating temperatures, off the shelf power supplies, and a repair and replacement program that allows the nations to purchase the products and provide support for agencies that do not have a funding level concurrent with other nations. 

Industry also needs to understand the customer base.  In Thailand for example, the “showcase” is the Bangkok Bomb Squad response team.  Identical to many domestic US Bomb Squads in its load out, it would actually surpass many Bomb Squads in the US.  However, this is not the norm by any means.  Most units operate out of the back of pickup trucks, and have limited space and maintenance capability where they are based in the south, further, dismounted patrolling in very dense tropical conditions is also prevalent.  The Thais do not and will not carry nearly the weight that the average US soldier will during dismounted operations, and manufacturers need to keep that in mind as well.

While needing to market and fill the needs of the Bangkok Bomb Squad, industry also needs to keep an eye on and offer solutions for both police, military, and civilian units operating in these more austere conditions.  And in so doing, developers can potentially open up opportunities to sell to other ASEAN nations as well.  Keep in mind that there are a number of EOD / C-IED units outside of the police and military.  Border Patrol, AoT (Airport Authority of Thailand), and MRT (Metro Rail Thailand) are just a few organizations that are also in need of equipment and have different operating requirements and budgets.

 

What is the process to begin a relationship with international partners? How did you begin and what would you recommend to others looking to partner with allied nations?

First, always realize that other nations have very different operating paradigms, and one should seek to work within those first, developing the existing processes and structure into a more efficient overall system.  Many times the people will come in and state ‘You need to be like Paladin (ATF, DHS, Troy, etc etc)’ when the host nation will never be able to field that level of resources to the problem.  In many cases, even if resourced, the templates provided may not be the best fit for the partner nation.  However, there are many good examples that come from these templates especially after years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some US domestic agencies.  But it is critical that the provider has a good understanding of the systems, and their strengths and weaknesses based upon their operating paradigms and is able to understand what operating conditions are similar and dissimilar in the other national environment.  

The US enjoys a lot of “C-IED and EOD Capital” right now with regard to perceptions overseas.  The US is seen as the leading nation for C-IED experience and knowledge.  However, the transition to leveraging these to the partner and host nations is essential for regional security and stability across not only the SE Asian and Pacific nations, but worldwide as well.  Leveraging our knowledge and experience effectively requires a long term relationship with the host nation personnel and adapting based upon their strengths and limitations.

Our success with partnering with Thailand began with our ability to utilize what they had to apply the “first level solutions” to their IED problem back in 2007.  We worked together with the equipment and jurisdictional restrictions they had to come up with joint solutions and didn’t rely on “Well you really need to have robots to do this” because we knew they were not going to get robots anytime soon.  After we collapsed in shock from the number of hand entries they do, we adapted techniques to RSP as safe as we could come up with based upon the tools that they had or could get with their resources.  Then built a road map or “wish list” for tools that would gradually bring about increased improvements along a prioritized path. 

The Thai EOD noticed this approach and appreciated it.  A core knowledge base of “old school” techniques is essential, the “sickle on the end of the stick” technique must be known as well as the technically advanced ones when operating in partnership overseas.  Other teams that came in relying on technology driven solutions, while having “wow factor”, did little to solve the immediate problem of enabling the Thai EOD operator to come home safe at the end of the day. 

Al Johnson Contributor:   Al Johnson


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