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Five things: Explosives in Afghanistan

Aug. 23, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Airman 1st Class Steven Murphy, left, and Airman 1st Class John Barr IV, both explosive ordnance disposal technicians, train at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
Airman 1st Class Steven Murphy, left, and Airman 1st Class John Barr IV, both explosive ordnance disposal technicians, train at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. (Staff Sgt. Brandon Shapiro / Air Force)
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An explosive ordnance disposal technician threads a hollow tube of explosives into the end of a percussion actuated neutralizer. (Airman 1st Class Ned T. Johnston / Air Force)

U.S. troops in Afghanistan are months away from the 2014 drawdown, but this latest statistic could lift some weight off their shoulders.

Attacks from improvised explosive devices dropped 19 percent for the three-month period that ended July 31, compared with the same time period in 2012.

Still, explosive ordnance disposal technicians train year-round to ensure the safety of deployed service members.

Here’s what you need to know about explosives in Afghanistan:

1 Threats remain. While IED attacks may be down, roadside bombs remain the top threat to U.S. troops, causing 61 percent of all casualties, according to the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

It’s worse for Afghan security forces, which have seen attacks increase 74 percent in the same three-month period this year.

2 A year-long difference. July 2012 was the worst month for IED attacks on U.S. troops. Insurgents planted more than 2,000 bombs that month.

But there are also fewer U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year, about 60,000, and they’ve take on more of an advisory role. That accounts in part for the increase in attacks on Afghan soldiers and cops who now lead most operations against insurgents.

3 Explosives then and now. Homemade explosives account for nearly three-quarters of IEDs. For years, the main ingredient in those explosives was ammonium nitrate fertilizer. In the last few years, U.S. officials have pressed Pakistan hard to limit the flow fertilizer into Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, insurgents have switched to a different source, potassium chlorate, the key ingredient in matches. Now more than half of all IEDs in Afghanistan are powered by potassium chlorate, compared with 25 percent last year.

4 Progress. U.S. troops find and defuse bombs better than ever. Soldiers and Marines on foot patrol now find 85 percent of makeshift bombs compared with 80 percent last year.

EOD technicians with 6th Civil Engineer Squadron back at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., identify and diffuse threats under different training scenarios. For example, these airmen are using percussion actuated neutralizers, as well as an advance radiographic system MK 41, during the training scenarios.

5 Tools and training. The PAN and MK41 are among a “myriad of tools” for EOD techs, said Master Sgt. Aris Dirodio, EOD flight chief for the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron.

PAN is used to blast a shot of water out of a tube and into a “suspect item,” such as boxes, crates and backpacks filled with explosives. The PAN disrupts and disarms what’s inside, or creates an opening in the suspect item, so the EOD technician can access what’s inside. The ARS MK 41 records and enhances images of IEDs and unexploded ordnances concealed within suspect items. The digital X-ray can be viewed to determine what the EOD technician is dealing with inside the concealment.

“The total training process is about 12 to 18 months from when these airmen first arrive to their unit,” Dirodio said.

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