The Use of Belgian Military Experts in EOD
by Captain Vincent Muylkens, Belgian Defense Staff Operations & Training EOD
For many years, a large debate over the use of military experts in humanitarian demining has existed. Some individuals are against military demining arguing the military performs different techniques and holds different priorities from humanitarian demining. Others are favourable toward military demining, as they are the majority of demining centres. The Belgian military has been active in demining since World War I (WWI). Still today, explosive remnants from WWI and World War II (WWII) remain a daily concern in the life of Belgians. The minefields have been cleared for many years, yet every day military experts still dispose of UXO or abandoned explosive ordnance (AXO). It is important to understand this process does not take place during a military operation. Rather it is placed within the framework of helping the population, a type of humanitarian demining.
The explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) service was created immediately after WWI. This service was active throughout Belgium, initially as a detachment to each Provincial Recovery Service. In 1922, many landmines were disposed of, giving the impression it would only take a few months to complete the project. Unfortunately, it became clear the UXO problem was far from over. In an effort to tackle this issue, the Ordnance Disposal Service was created on October 3, 1923.
After WWII, numerous Belgian military units were directed to dispose of the obstacles and mines laid in both world wars. These units were sent throughout Belgium. On August 16, 1941, the EOD service was recreated, after the captive personnel were freed, to dispose of all explosive devices and preserve any devices of military importance. Bomb disposal teams quickly formed in towns that suffered from bombing during the wars and in places where old minefields, ammunition dumps or explosive charges were discovered. The EOD service activities continually exceeded the tasks entrusted to it by staying in constant contact with several resistance groups and with allies. Through this constant interaction, EOD was able to inform London of possible manufacturing errors in fusing systems and of likely causes of non-exploding bombs. The bomb disposal experts also recovered explosives of defused devices and passed on the remaining explosive fillers to resistance groups for sabotage purposes.
On October 16, 1944, the Explosive Ordnance and Obstacle Disposal Service was created as an official addition to the EOD service and Belgian Armed Forces. In the first year, 300 men worked under this service. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal Service was created on December 1, 1945, to unite all existing bomb disposal units under one single command.
Between 1944 and 1948, the EOD service structure changed constantly as Belgium search for an ideal organization and due to the Bomb Disposal Unit constantly decreasing inside. Likewise, after WWII, the authorities believed an EOD service was no longer necessary. The abolition of this service was again imminent. However, on July 4, 1947, a different decision was made—to reduce its strength to 42 men. Fortunately this decision was never brought to execution, and by the end of 1948, the EOD service consisted of 350 men. The Explosive Ordnance and Obstacle Disposal Service held a temporary unit status until May 1, 1948, when it became an organization of the basic Armed Forces. Between 1949 and 1955, the EOD service saw many changes, essentially as a result of the reorganization of the Armed Forces. At the end of 1955, the EOD service had decreased to 115 personnel.
In October 1971, the army determined the EOD service would no longer be an independent unit. However, the early 1970s consisted of international terrorism, which meant a need for Belgian specialists capable of disposing booby traps, letter bombs, car bombs, etc. Furthermore, the number of leftover munitions from the two world wars exceeded the previous estimates. Each year, the EOD service received 3,000–4,000 requests to dispose devices of all kinds. Less than three years after its dissolution the EOD service was again created on August 1, 1974.
The Inter-service Territorial Command (ITC) was founded in 1995 due to a general reorganisation of the armed forces. ITC was established to bring together all bomb disposal units in charge of territorial bomb disposal operations under one command. This was the last major change for the EOD unit.
Today the Belgian bomb disposal battalion comprises 23 officers, 151 non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and 131 corporals and civilians, thus a total of 305 personnel of which 172 are bomb disposal experts (16 officers, 100 NCOs and 56 corporals). The battalion is composed of three companies decentralised to cover the all-national territory.
The first task of the unit is the clearance of UXO and AXO left in Belgium from the two world wars. Despite the proposal to dissolve the unit in 1971, the bomb disposal unit still reacts today to an average of 3,500 requests a year ranging from hand grenades to aircraft bombs up to 500 kg or more.
Consequently, the battalion handles an average of 250 tons of ammunition every year. Some 20 tons of "problem ammunition" (suspected chemical ammunition) are recovered each year, especially in the areas of fighting during WWI.
The Battalion's second mission is the dismantling of toxic and chemical ammunition dating from WWI. The dismantling facility is located at the site of conflict during WWI. During 1998 and 1999, tests were carried out on real ammunition to control the feasibility of the installation. The installation has been operational since October 1999.
The third major task calls for the support of juridical authorities in the field of terrorism and organised crime. This responsibility averages around 150 interventions a year for the EOD Battalion. Suspect devices ranging from letter bombs to car bombs are investigated and rendered safe. The unit is also in charge of post-explosion investigations. The EOD Battalion is always ready to intervene in case of a military air crash to recover ammunition and pyrotechnic elements. It can also rely on diver-bomb disposal experts for diving missions in the hinterland and the territorial water surfaces.
The unit instructs its own bomb disposal experts and organises instructional courses for police forces, juridical authorities and security agents. The basic course to become an EOD operator takes one year. After five years of experience, the non-commissioned EOD officer operator follows an advanced four-month course. Then the NCO can act as an EOD team leader. In 2003, the Ministry of Defence requested that the bomb disposal school develop an EOD team leader course for foreigners to participate in. This four-month course is available to experienced EOD operators.
Belgian military experts continually advise researchers involved in programs to support humanitarian demining. Regularly, the EOD operators support Belgian universities, the Royal Military Academy and many civilian universities in their studies with the humanitarian demining domain. The EOD experts constantly test new equipment and provide help to the students, based on their field experience.
The last support provided by the Belgian military experts encompasses the technical assistance to treaty and protocol development. Belgian Defence sends military experts and both EOD and non-EOD operators to international workshops and symposiums. During these development processes, the military experts can provide counsel to developing treaties and protocols based on their field experiences.
Beginning in 1990, Belgium began requesting UN support for its humanitarian activities and informing the world of its 70 years of lessons learned. Thus, the EOD Battalion began participating in operations abroad. One mission called for the protection of their own Belgian troops during deployments abroad. Others were conducted within the framework of humanitarian demining. Numerous units sent EOD experts to Rwanda (1986, 1993–1994), Iraq (1991), Former Yugoslavia (1992–today), Somalia (1992–1993), Cambodia (1994–today), Democratic Republic of the Congo (1997, 2004), Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) (1998–today), Albania (1999) and Benin (2001).The Battalion currently has the following 13 EOD operators abroad:
Following the past experiences of Belgium's use of military experts in humanitarian demining has an advantage, even if the humanitarian demining is normally not a military mission. When a country uses military experts to build a national EOD capacity to clear the country, the costs are substantially lower. The majority of armies with an EOD capacity developed them to support military operations. During peaceful times, this capacity is available and the operators can be used to clear the UXO on the national territory. The country does not need to pay twice to develop an EOD capacity for military operations and an EOD capacity for national territory. It is also evident that the experience gained on the national territory can also be used to support programs abroad.
Military experts usually have a military channel that gives them access to technical information. Thus, when the military experts are involved in support of the humanitarian demining, it is easier to get access to the needed technical information. Directly after a conflict, military units are regularly sent to control the peace process. The military EOD operators are able to start with the urgent clearance operations and disposal of UXO. The co-operation with other actors will only provide benefits to the humanitarian situation. A better coordination between military experts and non-military experts is also an advantage for research and development of mine action technologies with a reduction of the costs and an increase in the researchers involved.
In conclusion, AP mines are a problem, but they are unfortunately not the only problem after a conflict. Many statistics demonstrate today that UXO represent an important problem that may be larger than the AP mine problem. The experience of Belgium shows that many decades after the end of the hostilities, large quantities of UXO still remain on the ground. The demining activities of minefields and the disposal of UXO are major tasks that will take a long time. It is in the interest of the international community to take into account all available resources, included military operators. They perform the same job as the non-military operators with, in some cases, other priorities and other time schedules.