By Capt. Oscar Rojas, Commodore, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group One
Over the past two decades of war, Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) has become almost synonymous with enabling counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East, growing our expertise in improvised explosive device threats and clearing a safe path for America’s special operators downrange. As we grew our force significantly to face these threats, we maintained our ability to support the fleet in responding to conflicts at sea and in the littorals. In an era of great power competition, we recognize the threats of an emerging Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. We realize the important and incredibly specific role we hold in support of our Navy and our Nation. We are the only EOD force who is trained to eliminate and exploit underwater threats, and our expeditionary divers are the first naval assets on the scene to assist in salvaging ships and aircraft and clearing sea lanes and ports for use. This month, we shook the desert sand out of our boots and donned dry suits and cold-weather gear in Alaska as part of Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise 2019 to prepare our forces to operate in austere environments that could replicate future battlefields. As the Commander of U.S. Third Fleet’s Naval Expeditionary Combat Force (Combined Task Force 35), I mobilized our forces here for three reasons: to increase our agility in places we have not been in a long time; to test the limits of our technology, training, and logistics; and to build battle-mindedness across our force.
Hunting Mines in the Gateway to the Arctic
One of the hallmarks of the EOD community is ensuring security and supporting safety not only for our Nation’s combat forces but also for the U.S. homeland. Additionally, we must prepare for a wide range of challenges and contingencies to preserve freedom of the seas and defend our sovereignty. Fittingly, the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy also calls for supporting these same objectives in the Arctic region. Our EOD forces, which include our expeditionary Navy divers, have expertise that is relevant to both large-scale military conflicts as well as low-intensity conflicts and regional posturing. Specifically, we are the only Navy community with mine warfare as a core competency for both our officers and enlisted, and our forces have exercised those capabilities in the Arctic waters off of Adak, Alaska this month. Sailors and Marines from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit One’s expeditionary mine countermeasure (ExMCM) companies successfully tested their ability to operate unmanned underwater vehicles and conduct expeditionary mine countermeasures in very shallow Arctic waters. This is the farthest north our man-machine team has operated in the Western hemisphere and the first time Navy EOD employed ExMCM companies to enable access in a simulated denied environment for the United States Marine Corps’ Special Marine Air-Ground Task Force’s amphibious operations.
As the Navy is responsible for supporting and enabling amphibious landings for the United States Marine Corps, a path to the beach should be determined free of danger before a landing force’s arrival. The very shallow water zone, defined as depths between 10 to 40 feet of water, presents unique environmental challenges that may limit underwater visibility and pose a greater danger of placing personnel in a minefield. During the exercise, the ExMCM company worked together with unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), specifically the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish, to ensure the very shallow water zone was free of hazards. The team conducted mine hunting, hydrographic surveys and intelligence preparation of the operational environment ahead of Expeditionary Strike Group Three who will be conducting amphibious operations in the region in the coming weeks. Navy EOD’s competitive edge lies in how our human Sailors, with their creativity, pattern recognition and innovation, can team with technology to give our Nation the strongest mine countermeasure force with the fewest blind spots, and we are adamant about improving that relationship daily. During AECE 2019, we identified opportunities to refine our tactics, techniques and procedures and intend to share these lessons learned so that America’s Navy is better prepared to fight for sea control in the Arctic environment.
Mobile Diving and Salvage Teams Providing Port Access
Just as our EOD forces support deterrence of aggression, promote freedom of navigation and will contribute directly in a future fight for sea control, so too do our expeditionary divers. Underwater hazards can be used to deny free access to ports, harbors and river and restrict movement through critical sea lines of communication. Sailors from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One (MDSU-1), based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, mobilized to Adak, Alaska, to conduct a salvage and removal operation of the stranded fishing vessel Heritage that was blocking access to a boat ramp that is the primary launch point for commercial and private fishing vessels in the area. The abandoned fishing vessel prevented the local community from using the harbor to its full potential. The Navy divers conducted surveys and inspections on the fishing vessel in May to gain a full understanding of the job and what personnel and equipment would be required for the mission. After conducting the site survey, the divers found F/V Heritage was beyond salvageable due to its structural state, so they scrapped the vessel by cutting it in place until smaller sections of the vessel could be pulled onto shore for disposal. While this salvage and removal operation primarily focused on removing an underwater hazard for the community of Adak, it also provided realistic and relevant training for Navy divers in a cold-water environment to ensure they are ready to maintain physical access to ports and contribute to our Nation’s lethality whenever, wherever. Removing the fishing vessel not only removed a navigational hazard but also set the conditions for potential military training on Adak in the future.
MDSU-1 is one of only two such units in the entire U.S. that can clear ports by removing damaged or stranded vessels or returning them to sea. These units, comprised of Navy divers, engineering duty officers, explosive ordnance technicians, administrators, and medical teams, fall under the Navy EOD community because of the close relationship we share in conducting expeditionary diving objectives as well as the crossover between our two skillsets. Rest assured our Navy divers are combat-ready, rapidly deployable and able to conduct harbor clearance, salvage, underwater search and recovery, and underwater emergency repairs in any environment.
We were honored to assist the local community with such an important project in Adak, and we greatly appreciated their support of our EOD and dive teams while visiting. Like much of what we do, having a community that supports us makes our jobs easier and more enjoyable.
Commanding and Controlling Combat Forces
While our Navy EOD and dive teams conducted missions in Adak, our CTF 35 staff exercised our ability to command and control mine countermeasure forces from over 1,000 miles away in Anchorage. Typically mine countermeasure squadrons fulfill this role; however, in an expeditionary environment where a light, fast and precise ExMCM capability is needed, I wanted to ensure Navy EOD was ready to assume control of operations. Before arriving in Alaska, our team underwent mine countermeasures staff planning training in July to ensure we were properly prepared to support a mine warfare commander in combat. The procedures for employing and countering obstacles on land differ from those at sea, and after 17 years of land-focused warfare, I needed to know our staff understood how maritime forces work together to predict, detect, prevent, avoid, neutralize, protect and respond to potential hazards in the maritime domain.
Our communications team tested five different communications systems to support the command and control of our forces, including a test of our ability to conduct high-frequency communications, which has become a dying art form in recent years with the advent of satellite communications. In the future, it will be necessary to be able to establish communications in a denied environment if our satellite communications were to be hacked of jammed by an adversary.
During the exercise, our training department created a rigorous expeditionary training schedule for Group One Sailors that included small arms training, land navigation, combat medicine training, counter-improvised explosive device, counter unmanned aerial systems and chemical weapon training. As members of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, we have all been equipped with basic expeditionary combat skills through the Expeditionary Combat School, but our training does not stop at the schoolhouse. This exercise proved it does not take an operator to be battle-ready or battle-minded. Every single one of the Sailors assigned to Group One understands the necessity of this training and why we must be able to fight tonight. That is what sets us apart from our adversaries and what sets us apart as an expeditionary combat force. From the third class petty officer in our administrative shop to our most veteran EOD operators, our Sailors will be our asymmetric advantage against our adversaries in a future high-end fight.
Where We Are Headed
Conditions in the Arctic are changing fast and Navy presence in the region will only continue to grow in the future. It is no coincidence that we exercised our capabilities in the port of Adak, which sits at the strategic intersection of the North Pacific Great Circle Route and the Northwest Passage, Transpolar and Northern Sea Routes. As Arctic sea lanes open and shipping traffic increases, U.S. maritime forces have a responsibility as global leaders to secure shipping lanes, protect natural resources, deter conflict and safeguard national interests. Navy EOD will be the premier EOD force for ensuring that our forces in the Arctic region remain undeterred by the threat of explosives. As we execute our mission of eliminating explosive threats so our fleet and Nation can fight and win, whenever and wherever they choose, we are keeping a close eye on future opportunities in the region, developing cutting-edge technology and updating tactics so that we can increase the lethality of Navy EOD and maintain our competitive edge against our adversaries. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to exercise our EOD and expeditionary diving capabilities in Alaska this month in support of the Navy and Marine Corps, and we thank the local community for their incredible support. We are already looking ahead to the future for more opportunities to train in Arctic waters in support of our nation’s objectives.
Capt. Oscar Rojas is currently serving as the Commodore of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group One stationed in San Diego, California. Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group One mans, trains, and equips seven subordinate units to eliminate explosive threats for our fleet and Nation in any environment.