BLUE MOUNTAIN – Soldiers armed with metal detectors advance at snail’s pace down a woodland trail.
Every scrap of metal they see could be a potential death trap, an improvised explosive device that has all-too-often maimed and killed Canadian and allied soldiers in combat zones.
Luckily this is only an exercise, but army engineers on maneuvers in Cape Breton’s Blue Mountain region are treating it as the real thing, practising lessons learned fighting terrorists in Afghanistan.
As they move along the path, they take with them a robot to help with anything they find, explains Master Warrant Officer Dan McPhee from Sydney. His unit is part of 4 Engineering Support Regiment’s Exercise Nihilo Sapper, which tests skills such as safe removal of IEDs, commonly used by insurgent groups around the world.
The key to safe handling of IEDs is keeping one’s distance from such lethal devices using specialized vehicles and remote-controlled technology such as the robot. With vehicles such as the tractor-like Husky, which uses ground-penetrating sensors to pinpoint suspect devices, they search for the potential bomb. They also use an armoured Buffalo vehicle, surrounded by a cage to protect it from ambush attacks and equipped with a high-resolution camera mounted on a beam to scan the road surface.
The Buffalo can also deploy a remote-controlled mechanical arm that can reach out a distance from a vehicle and dig up IED components to confirm a dangerous device.
Engineers will commonly deploy the robot to confirm any suspected IEDs found by the Buffalo and separate the bomb from its detonator.
Only then will the army’s explosive ordnance disposal experts be dispatched, an approach that McPhee said minimizes the risks to human personnel.
“Once these two pieces are separated, it makes it safer for the EOD operator to go down on another approach dressed in a bomb suit and confirm that things have been made safe.”
Unlike other military units whose focus is fast-moving mobile warfare using tanks or planes, EOD soldiers must fight a slow-moving battle against insurgents that requires painstaking detective work every step of the way.
As if to underline this, the armoured convoy crawls along at walking pace. Soldiers frequently dismount from vehicles to scan the ground with metal detectors, picking their way through trees near the road.
This was often how soldiers fought Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, patrolling the same routes time and again as their enemies would frequently slip in and plant IEDs.
It was this type of scenario that 4 Engineers’ EOD troops are recreating in a mock battle against insurgents.