Weapons: EOD A Victim Of Progress


December 16, 2018: In Britain, the RAF (Royal Air Force) is disbanding its last EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit. First formed in 1943 to deal with air-dropped bombs and especially bombs attached to downed aircraft (enemy and friendly) the RAF EOD units disabled or destroyed 176,000 explosive items by the time the war ended in 1945. The more numerous army EOD units will take over the work previously done by the RAF EOD. The Royal Navy still has two EOD units to deal with explosives found underwater along the coast. Since World War II the army EOD units have handled most EOD work in Great Britain and there was plenty of it after 1970 when Irish radicals began planting bombs in Northern Ireland and England until the 1990s. Then came the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the need to help deal with the millions of mines planted along heavily guarded borders in Russian occupied East Europe. That was followed by Islamic terrorism, which still keeps EOD personnel busy. Meanwhile, the RAF EOD specialized in explosives in intact or crashed aircraft, but there were fewer and fewer instances that as military aircraft became safer and had fewer accidents, especially while carrying weapons. Meanwhile, the demand for non-military EOD personnel grew as foreign aid came to include helping people deal with local EOD problems (from past wars or current terrorists). This provided more opportunities for military EOD personnel.

The growth in EOD work and especially non-military EOD organizations made it more difficult to keep military EOD specialists in uniform. In 2008 The U.S. Department of Defense was having a very hard time keeping its EOD units up to strength. There were only a few thousand of these specialists, and they had suffered a higher casualty rate (about twice as much) than the infantry over the previous five years. These are the guys who go out and deal with roadside bombs that have been discovered. Actually, army and marine engineers also fill in, at least on the simple cases (where the bomb is obvious and you can just send a robot out to drop off an explosive to destroy the bomb). But it's always preferable to have the EOD specialists do it because that gets the job done more quickly and with fewer casualties.

The problem has always been that EOD veterans who have twenty years’ service can retire on half pay, and take a safer, but similar, civilian job, and make more than they made while in the uniform. Many of the most experienced EOD operators, who can retire, are under pressure from their families to take the non-military option, so daddy can stay home, be safer and make more money. It's a hard deal to turn down.

To encourage these veteran EOD experts to remain in uniform a little longer, some were offered bonuses of up to $25,000 a year, for re-enlisting for up to six years. The most senior EOD specialists were offered a $20,000 bonus for one year. In peacetime, military EOD technicians do stay in one place for long periods and don't undergo much more risk than do civilian EOD teams. But because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, navy and air force EOD personnel have been going there to help out the army and marine EOD teams. Other NATO nations also helped out, sending their EOD teams. Thus all Department of Defense EOD personnel were exposed to higher casualties and more time away from the family. Retiring at twenty begins to look very attractive. The cash bonuses alone are not what keeps a lot of these veteran sailors in, but also the gesture the bonus offer represents.

The high casualties have also made it more difficult to recruit new EOD technicians. That's despite the increasing signing bonuses for qualified recruits. In the last six years, that bonus (at least for the U.S. Navy) has gone from $8,000 to $40,000. The training is long and the work is dangerous. The higher casualty rate is no secret. That is not a totally negative thing, because EOD always attracted the adrenaline junkies, who were skilled and disciplined enough to get through the training. But these guys can just join the infantry or marines and get all the thrills they can handle but at much less risk of injury.

In peacetime, EOD is a better gig than the infantry, but it looks like it might be a while before the EOD threat declines, and EOD has to figure out how to get their recruiting numbers up. Lowering standards is not an option, because that just drives up casualties, and ruins the morale (and reenlistment rates) of the people you already have. The Department of Defense wouldn't discuss exact numbers, but there was an increasing amount of activity devoted to recruiting more EOD operators and keeping the ones they already have.

In Europe, the EOD situation was somewhat different in peacetime because there was a lot more work dealing with bombs and other explosive devices still being discovered and in need of attention. In 2014, as European nations began commemorating the 1914-18 war there were still plenty of explosive reminders around. One side-effect of the hundredth anniversary of World War I was reminders that while the most common source of unexploded munitions are from World War II there are still some areas where World War I era unexploded munitions remain a major problem. This was especially true of the Western Front where over 300 million shells and grenades were used and a lot of them were duds. In France, where most of these shells landed, several hundred tons of unexploded World War I shells were still found each year a century later. While 640 Frenchmen have died since 1945 dealing with the unexploded shells as time goes by the remaining stuff becomes less lethal. The last death in France from World War I era munitions was in 1998.

Nevertheless, there are still parts of the Western Front that remain off-limits to civilians. France did a survey of the Western Front right after World War I and drew up a map showing the areas where the danger was greatest from unexploded munitions. The most dangerous areas, the “Red Zones” comprised 1,200 square kilometers in 1919 but had shrunk over the years by about 90 percent.

Despite the huge quantities of shells fired on the Russian Front in both World Wars, you hear little about it because the Russian Front battles were fought over a much larger area and the communist era command economy meant little new construction. With all the post-Cold War construction going on in Russia a lot more of these old munitions are being found, but most of them from World War II. For example, in 2013 two men died when a World War II era artillery shell went off as they examined it in a forest outside Kaliningrad, which was the German city of Konigsberg until it changed ownership at the end of World War II. Earlier in 2013 two railroad workers were injured when they triggered a World War II era landmine outside St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). In Western Russia, police arrested a man in 2013 who was trying to sell five 81mm mortar shells he had found. He found six but tested one by tossing it in a fire, taking cover and then noting that the 65 year old shell exploded. These shells weigh 4-5 kg (8.8-11 pounds) and about twenty percent of that is explosives (most of it high explosives, the rest propellant). In most parts of Russia, the local governments offer a reward for people who turn in ancient munitions, or better yet, don’t try and move the stuff and just report the location. But this guy either didn’t know about the rewards or figured he could make more by selling the five shells. Most people had better sense than to buy elderly munitions and word of the sales activity eventually got to the police. These rewards are not the only continuing cost of World War II. There are also the heavy expenses for special teams of technicians who can safely remove these ancient but still deadly munitions.

In Britain, the RAF EOD got an unexpected surprise in mid-2007 when construction workers in Britain unearthed a German V-1 cruise missile, that crashed in London in 1944 or 45, and got buried by other debris. It had lain unnoticed until 2007, its explosive warhead still intact. The V-1 was a 7.8 meter (25 foot) long, 2.1 ton cruise missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a .9 ton warhead. It actually looked like a small aircraft, with a 5.6 meter (18 foot) wingspan. The V-1 used a jet engine and flew at a low (under 1,000 meters/2-3,000 feet) altitude. That, combined with their relatively high speed (630 kilometers an hour) made them difficult to hit with anti-aircraft artillery, especially since the crews were accustomed to firing at propeller driven aircraft flying at slower speeds (closer to 500 kilometers an hour). Initially, only 17 percent of V-1s spotted were hit by anti-aircraft. But as the gun crews adapted, that eventually rose to 60 percent.

Since most incoming V-1s were spotted by radar, fighters could be dispatched to go after them. But the V-1 traveled faster than the propeller-driven fighters, which had to patrol at a high altitude and dive in order to catch the cruise missiles. Even then, gunfire was not as effective as it was against a manned fighter. There was no pilot to hit. If the warhead went off, the attacking fighter was sometimes destroyed or damaged (machine-guns were used at a range of a few hundred meters, at most.) Some fighters were able to get adjacent to a V-1, and use its wing to bump under the V-1 wing and tip it over, and out of control. This was only used a few times. With all that, nearly a thousand V-1s were destroyed by intercepting fighters. Balloons ("barrage balloons") were also used over likely target areas (southeast London), and over a hundred were downed that way until the Germans fitted wire cutters to the V-1 wings (which often just cut the tethering cable.)

The Germans fired some 10,000 V-1 cruise missiles at Britain, starting in June of 1944. The V1 was primitive, but it was the ancestor of today's cruise missiles. Some 2,419 V-1s managed to hit London, while 4,261 were destroyed by guns, aircraft and balloons. Many others just went missing or landed in the countryside. Those that hit London killed 6,184 people and injured 17,981. There was considerable property damage as well. The guidance system was primitive, so the huge London metropolitan area was the most likely target to be hit. It was rare for a V-1 to crash with its warhead not detonating and even more unlikely for one to get buried by debris and go undiscovered for more than 60 years. If another V-1 is found the army EOD will handle it. Meanwhile, there have been a few modern cruise missiles that crashed or were shot down in combat but so far none that were in any condition to need an EOD team to disarm it.

World War II era munitions continue to show up throughout Europe. Although most of the millions of landmines were removed from Europe within a few years of the war ending in 1945, there are still a huge number of unexploded of grenades, shells and bombs buried all over the place. At least the minefields were easy to find, although dangerous to clear. But the remaining munitions were left behind, in unrecorded locations, for some pretty simple reasons. First of all, many bombs, artillery and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) do not explode when they are supposed to but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions are left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and get buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. London and Berlin, two of the most heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs or, in this case, cruise missiles.

It’s not just aircraft bombs. Most of the explosives unearthed are smaller items like grenades, mortar shells, rockets and mines. Many bombs, artillery and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) did not explode when they were supposed to, but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions were left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and got buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. Most large cities, Europe and the Pacific, that were heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs. In Russian cities, you tend to find lots of artillery shells were fired by both Russian and German troops.

The problem goes back farther than World War II. Unexploded munitions from World War I (which ended in 1918), and the American Civil War (which ended in 1865), are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. Currently, over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe.


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