Leading EOD in a VUCA Environment

By Lt. Col. Alex Spora, Head of Operations, Swiss Army NBC-EOD Competence Center

We live in an age where polarizing narratives are at the same time “means” and “symptom” of our era. Even single issues, such as a construction project, a political decision, or an incident with members of a certain community can escalate to an “all-or-nothing” stance. Malign actors can take advantage of such a situation and foster division and conflict within a target population. With relatively few measures, threat networks can be established. With some measures more, such networks can be enabled to conduct operations. Meanwhile, military ordnance is being developed and tested in current conflicts. New mines, minelaying systems, and submunitions are being introduced. Many of these systems will be interconnected to other platforms, and artificial intelligence will step up its presence on the battlefield. State or state-sponsored forces are being equipped with increasingly modern specialized explosive ordnance, such as new sabotage devices, booby traps, and pursuit denial ammunition.

As conflicts close to our borders simmer and freeze, important amounts of ordnance leave the warzone. We need to be aware of these devices. The average bomb technician in a regional department might encounter advanced military ordnance, perhaps even in an unexploded state, while performing his or her duties. And the bomb tech is expected to succeed. During my career, I experienced how EOD would be increasingly seen as a jack-of-all-trades for a wide range of explosive-related issues, ranging from public safety bomb disposal to demining, preventive sweeping, conducting checks on commercial UXO clearance companies, or advising on storage and transport practices. This poses a wide range of expectations on our shoulders. To this, there are a few lessons I’d like to share:

Invest in situational awareness. All bomb technicians do their own assessment as they attend to a situation, but they need a baseline to start with. I believe it is the unit’s responsibility to provide them with a digestible information background before they go out. This could be in form of a daily sitrep, a weekly briefing, or regular topic-related updates. Never deploy your unit to the full FTE (Full Time Equivalent) extent. I have seen police departments calculate 1.4 officers per duty slot – meaning that the force had significantly more officers on the payroll than on the mission rooster. People might go to refresher training, take parental leave, or simply get sick or injured. Not having to constantly worry about work overload is paramount to keep the unit in shape and psychologically healthy. Have a system to integrate new technology. Have an organic asset that researches, develops, and/or tests new equipment and procedures. Integrate AI in your systems, and make sure your technicians can control and steer it effectively. Beware of drip-feeding capabilities. I have seen situations where headquarters would fall for the “just tick the box” trap. While formally aiming at a certain capability, they would send too few technicians to the appropriate courses, get less than the minimal equipment, or even not allow enough refresher training. All this might enable us to “tick the box” (“yes sir, we are x,y,z-capable”), while in reality, it amounts to little more than a bluff.

Integrate junior technicians efficiently. A friend of mine works in an educational institute for health care personnel. A common discussion topic is how deep and how wide the curriculum should go before they release their students to the frontline. I think EOD has a very similar dilemma. Some advocate a wide, but rather shallow training curriculum, where the students get to see a wide picture of all procedures and equipment, making them knowledgeable, but not yet proficient in their trade. This will require on-the-job learning and some sort of senior-junior mentoring. On the other side, students who have a rather narrow, but solid set of skills will be able to integrate quicker in the teams. Later though, they will have to follow on with their education and thus leave the unit for a certain period. Whatever your solution is, there must be continuity, dialogue, and understanding between those that work in the training department, and those that work in the units. Defend your training schedule at all costs. It is my belief that an average EOD outfit needs between 200 and 300 hours of training a year to refresh their basic individual and team capabilities. If you have any specialized technicians (like underwater EOD, CBRN, etc) their specialized refresher training needs to be added to the yearly curriculum. This can depend on the specialty, but it could mean 150 to 250 hours on top of what is needed to stay fit. Resist all urges to reduce training time at the benefit of having more tasks and services being done, or even for the sake of cost-reducing. It won’t pay off. Invest in attitude. I grew up at the foot of the Alps, and unsurprisingly, I was conscripted in Mountain Infantry. As young privates, we learned to distinguish our NCOs by two categories: good climber vs average climber, and good mentor vs bad mentor. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who we’d follow and trust while hanging on the line. In EOD I’ve seen similar situations: experienced Bomb Techs will acquire a certain informal standing within the unit. How they use that influence tells a lot about their character. With a wrong, perhaps even toxic attitude, you might get an excellent technician, but no leader, surely not someone who will mentor his or her younger colleagues to be better, and even less ensure cohesion within a team.

A few points regard those in positions of leadership:

  • Keep your Operational Task Analysis (OTA) constantly refreshed, and make sure you have clear recommendations that flow out of it. A good OTA is useful to defend equipment and training needs (see above) and will give you solid lines while arguing with your superiors.
  • Set up a “business plan for EOD units” for the next 4 to 6 years, just as if you were a commercial company. It helps to plan equipment renewal, personnel, and capability development. By seeing what is coming up in the medium to long term, you’ll be able to respond and adapt on time.
  • Lead the change management process. The term is often used badly by half-witted managers, citing it as an excuse to promote career-pushing reforms. But there are excellent guides to proper change management practices. If used correctly, these will gain traction and help develop the unit. And remember – it is your subordinates that you need to convince first.
  • Keep contingency planning up to date. In the event of an overwhelming explosive threat, Headquarters, as well as your subordinates will turn to you and expect a timely delivered plan.

Lastly, one big suggestion. Read! Read how others solved things, how they interpreted them, how they dealt with other agencies, and so on. No bombing campaign is the same. But studying past examples helps you to identify recurring patterns, constraints, enablers, and vulnerabilities. Most bombing campaigns are connected to a wider picture; in some cases they are just a sideshow within a bigger framework. As a leader, you need to understand that overall picture and be able to set your decisions within that context.

AUTHOR


Lt. Col. Alex Spora is an EOD officer within the Swiss Armed Forces. He previously served for 12 years as the Head of EOD Operations at the Swiss EOD Center. He deployed multiple times in Africa and in the Balkans and served as the Swiss representative at the NATO C-IED Working Group, NATO Team of Experts on Countering RCIED, as well as within the EOD and Military Engineering United Nations Military Unit Manual (UNMUM) Working Groups. He is currently a project officer in the clearance of the former Ammunition Storage Area of Mitholz, Switzerland.