BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Tucked away in a shed on one of NATO’s largest bases in Afghanistan, the wooden shelves of Combined Joint Task Force Paladin’s improvised explosive device fabrication shop look like a terrorist’s dream.
Here, a handful of technicians build thousands of functional IED triggers a year, but the deadly serious work is designed to save lives, not take them.
Many devices are only “one blasting cap” away from being able to set off a bomb, but they will never be connected to real explosives. Instead, they will be handed off to military units working to hone their defenses against what has become the insurgents’ deadliest weapon against both NATO and Afghan troops.
Homemade bombs, booby traps and other explosive devices have been used extensively by guerrillas in numerous conflicts since World War II as an effective way of causing casualties to conventional forces. Groups that have used them include the Viet Cong, Irish Republican Army, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, Chechen rebels and Iraqi insurgents.
Comprised of experts from a range of coalition militaries as well as contractors, task force Paladin oversees counter-IED efforts across Afghanistan.
At Bagram as well as at two similar workshops in southern Afghanistan, Paladin technicians have built more than 17,000 IED teaching aides since 2009. Paladin training teams scattered around the country often assemble their own training devices as well.
“It’s very important that soldiers see that realism so that when they see something out in the field, it triggers thoughts in their minds,” said project manager Dave Rowsey, a former member of U.S. special operations. “If they never see what these devices look like and how they work, they wouldn’t recognize them.”
Some of the devices go to help train Afghan units that are taking over security operations. Some devices are used as visual guides — what Rowsey calls a “petting zoo” — while others can be attached to “penalties,” like buzzers or lights, so trainees can see what actions would set the triggers off.
The technicians who dabble in the “Dark Arts” of IED construction at Bagram often turn to the same methods insurgents use for scrounging for old pallets and used tires to build their devices.
Because many of the devices are considered so sensitive, those assembled at Bagram are only issued to American units. While never hooked up to actual explosives, many of the products are so real that they are considered controlled items that have to be accounted for like weapons and ammunition.
“The bomb makers we’re up against generally have a very low education level, so all it takes is a look at a photo of one of these and they may get ideas they would never have otherwise,” Rowsey said. He said his team is constantly updating their arsenal of training aides with the latest IED developments.
The number of IED attacks on coalition troops has dropped since a peak in July 2012, USA Today reported in August. But the makeshift bombs continue to cause more than 60 percent of all U.S. casualties. As the Afghans have increased their operations, attacks on their forces have increased by nearly 75 percent over last year.
IEDs are expected to remain a major threat as NATO troops withdraw and the training devices are part of the effort to reduce that risk by continuing counter-IED training for coalition troops in Afghanistan.
“A lot of this stuff they’re supposed to get before they deploy, but we do a refresher and an overview when they arrive here,” said U.S. Army Maj. Stephen Midkiff, the officer in charge of Paladin’s training program. “Some units will get more specialized training, but we try at least to provide a baseline for everyone.”