A Single, Explosive Subject ; Applying Lessons of War, U.S. Military School Tries to Halt Makeshift Bombs

Article excerpt

Applying the lessons of war learned overseas, a U.S. military school tries to teach its students to thwart the use of makeshift bombs at home.

The bomb-disposal technicians huddled with the fire chief and the Transportation Security Administration supervisor on the tarmac of Northwest Florida Regional Airport. The chief and the supervisor told the technicians that luggage screeners thought they had spotted two bombs in suitcases belonging to passengers on a departing plane.

Operators of a CTX machine, or luggage scanner, spotted the first in a rollaway bag on a conveyor belt. The bag had been matched to a passenger. A review of surveillance video from the terminal showed its owner talking in a familiar way to another man.

That man's bag, also thought to hold a bomb, was "out there" -- the T.S.A. supervisor gestured toward luggage trailers on the asphalt near a gate.

So began an exercise in the Advanced Improvised Explosive Device Disposal course, a quietly busy American military school intended to help thwart a weapon indelibly linked to terrorism and war: the makeshift bomb, the type of weapon that had been used days before in the Boston Marathon attack.

This exercise, held on the Florida Panhandle the night before the police closed in on the marathon suspects in Massachusetts, had been scheduled since January. But its timing was not lost on its participants.

Tracy Stage, the airport's deputy director, watched the drill and said the value of the training had been brought home by what happened in Boston. A weapon of unconventional war had shown itself once again to be a domestic killer.

The students and instructors, mostly veterans of combat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, had seen the bloody effects of bombing campaigns abroad. They had years of experience disabling improvised devices, examining blast sites and searching for evidence among burned wreckage and human remains.

The events in Boston seemed to surprise none of them. Several said they expected to see more makeshift bombs in the United States, where, in certain circumstances, particularly in rural areas, military ordnance disposal technicians could be called to work beside civilian law enforcement agencies.

"It's not a matter of if," said Capt. Joseph Polanin, the commanding officer of Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, which offers this advanced course to seasoned technicians. "It's a matter of when."

The school Captain Polanin commands trains ordnance disposal technicians in all four American military services, as well as foreign military students.

The course, which lasts three weeks and trains about 375 students a year, is open only to experienced military technicians and students from federal agencies; it does not admit foreign students, however, because much of its instruction is classified. The curriculum sharpens skills that might be used overseas or in the United States.

The latest drill began when Juanita Wright, an operations supervisor at the airport, called the school to report the discovery of the bombs and request help. Two teams of students were soon en route to the terminal.

On the tarmac, the teams set up a pair of remote-controlled robots, which soon were rolling on treads toward the suspicious luggage.

That the last night of the course's exercises was held at a public airport, served by prominent commercial airlines, including Delta, United and US Airways, was by design.

The makeshift bomb, disposal technicians know, is not merely a weapon of trench lines or remote trails, or used solely against military convoys and patrols. It has become the weapon of choice in terrorist attacks across a spectrum of civilian settings: in markets and places of worship, in parking lots and stadiums, in schools or, as in Boston, on crowded urban streets.

The course also conducts its exercises at recognizable public sites -- like a bank, a police station, a rail yard, a goat-and- poultry farm, a day care center, a motel, an abortion clinic and more. …