Navy bomb experts deal with futuristic threats in Iceland

Royal Navy bomb disposal experts faced down the latest threats when they joined NATO experts for ten days in Iceland.

A team from the newly-formed Expeditionary Diving Group joined more than 60 experts dealing with over 300 bombs, mines and homemade explosives to ensure they can neutralise them.

The Britons were presented with threats as diverse as drone-delivered explosives devices, 3D-printed limpet mines and a suicide bomber as they practised alongside nine teams from seven nations on NATO’s premier such exercise, Northern Challenge.

The Royal Navy divers, based at Horsea Island in Portsmouth, left their usual fins, masks and diving sets behind in favour of a lightweight remotely-controlled vehicle, Dragon Runner, cumbersome X-ray equipment and an awkward 38kg bomb suit (think Hurt Locker) to deal with devices on land, rather in the water or on the shoreline.

Instead, Northern Challenge was played out on unforgiving volcanic terrain at Keflavik – next to Reykjavik’s international airport – exposed to relentless winds and low temperatures.

All NATO nations train their explosive ordnance disposal operators to a common standard but decades of experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland have permitted the UK to hone its skills to a tee.

Lieutenant Commander Rory Armstrong, Expeditionary Diving Group’s Commanding Officer

The exercise allows a unique insight into the equipment, tactics and teamwork other nations’ bomb disposal experts use.

As important as rendering a bomb safe – or detonating safely if necessary – is collecting forensic evidence to understand how the device worked, and to help the authorities catch the perpetrators.

That’s particularly relevant to the Royal Navy team which was called on last year to evaluate attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East – and need to remain at the leading edge of disposal. The stakes were raised during the exercise with devices targeting the individual disposal operators.

“Northern Challenge was an amazing opportunity to train with live explosives against a threat which is both challenging and extremely realistic,” said Petty Officer (Diver) James Shell.

“Every action of the operator has a consequence and any lapse in attention to detail risks your own life and that of the operator called upon to deal with the next bomb. There is simply no better place to train.”

Able Seaman (Diver) Matt Latimer either prepared and operated the suite of tools attached to the Dragon Runner or carried to the target by the No.1 operator.

“There’s something surreal about remotely firing a weapon to disrupt an explosive device while a passenger flight comes into land what feels like a stone’s throw away – we observe strict safety distances just like any weapon,” said Matt.

“This was my first Northern Challenge and it’s been fascinating to see how other nations go about business. The equipment and accents might be different, but we have a common language as bomb disposal experts.”

The Expeditionary Diving Group has been formed this year in place of the long-standing Fleet Diving Group, taking responsibility for specialist dive teams who deploy around the world to protect Royal Navy and British shipping, key ports and infrastructure, and also take on a new mission: a dedicated bomb-disposal team accompanying the UK’s new carrier task groups.

The divers returned to Portsmouth having benefited hugely from their Icelandic experience, said Lieutenant Commander Armstrong.

“As bomb disposal experts we are trained first to the equivalent standard of an Army operator before acquiring the specialist maritime skills to deliver in our own environment,” he said.

“I’m tremendously proud of my team’s ability to more than match the capabilities of our multinational counterparts in what is in effect a secondary role.”