The Royal Logistics Corps is not nicknamed the Really Large Corps for nothing; it is the single largest element of the British Army and was formed in 1993 by amalgamating Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Pioneer Corps, Army Catering Corps, Royal Corps of Transport and the posties from the Royal Engineers.
One of the problems with the RLC is that it is too large, too diverse, too many roles and ultimately too diffuse. Transportation, logistics management (this is not transportation), ammunition storage, postal services, fuel operations, port operations, pioneers and field catering.
How can the delivering post, rustling up an egg banjo and disposing of IED’s sit within one organisation?
In some respects though, it makes sense for the Combat Service Support elements to be under one roof, it is a difficult issue to reconcile.
To make matters worse, or better depending on your viewpoint, we also have duplication of very similar functions across the three services
I am going to break this post up into a few parts for ease of reading
This is a difficult subject to write about whilst so much sterling and incredibly brave work is going on in Afghanistan, but it is still worth discussing.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal is a broad subject with a long history but in the modern context has evolved as much by a combination of historical accident as anything else, the need to excavate to deeply buried German bombs needing the obvious involvement of a field engineering force, the Royal Engineers, for example.
The Joint Force IED arrangement we are now seeing are a result of both the changing nature of the IED threat and the sheer volume of devices, but the underlying structures have remained. Evolving from the WWI Ordnance Examiners of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps the modern Explosive Ordnance Disposal capability traces much of its history back to the Blitz, having to deal with both unexploded ‘duds’ and devices that used time delay fuses. The ongoing ‘measure’ and ‘countermeasure’ struggle between the German designers and those tasked with clearing them continued throughout the war and this experience was disseminated widely to other nations like the USA.
Modern EOD arguably evolved from here.
The use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IED’s) in Northern Ireland lead to the creation of specialist units in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, now RLC. The Royal Navy Mine Warfare Diving Branch and Royal Air Force 5131 Bomb Disposal Squadron can also trace their histories back decades.
This has led to a situation where to counter conventional and improvised explosive devices we have 2 units from the Army and one each from the other services.
This may seem wasteful but to understand why, one simply has to look at their respective missions. The Royal Engineers (33 and 101(V) Regiment) are responsible for specialist search and conventional explosive ordnance clearance. 11 EOD Regiment RLC are responsible for counter terrorist bomb disposal, explosive ordnance disposal and the recovery and safe disposal of conventional munitions which can include anything from small arms ammunition to battlefield rockets. The RN clearance branch is attached to the mine countermeasures capability and is responsible for explosive ordnance disposal underwater (RE divers also have this role) and the RAF EOD Bomb Disposal Squadron is responsible for airfield clearance operations. There is sound logic for this distinction, the RLC C-IED operators are drawn from the technical ammunition trade and this specialist knowledge is an advantage when dealing with the wide variety of devices found both on and off a battlefield. Specialist expertise takes a long time to develop, career structures are very different from the RE EOD personnel.
Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have focussed on the IED but the other skills and capabilities must not be neglected. However, whilst the UK armed forces were large it could support these specialism’s but there are obvious crossovers and duplications that might be unsupportable in a smaller force.
IED’s have gone from a specialist weapon used by terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland to a mainstream weapon that will feature in probably every future conflict and we have to ask if the existing arrangements are efficient or sustainable.
With the increasing use of direct to user delivery of ammunition from the manufacturer and more complex ammunition that needs REME support the demand for the traditional role of ammunition management might be less. It hasn’t and won’t go away though because the cost effective management of all types of ammunition is still a highly skilled and essential activity and to counter the manufacturer to user argument there is an increasingly onerous legislative environment and much more insecurity of supply. One could argue either way about the need for specialist ammunition/explosive specialists.
With a reduction of the trade from which High Threat C-IEDD operators are drawn this will inevitably reduce career opportunities and mean a greater demand on those actually able to carry out this extremely difficult task, a sustained demand for manual approaches will inevitably mean those individuals are going to suffer. The highly specialist and technical approach to IED disposal as perfected in Northern Ireland may not always be appropriate in an environment like Afghanistan, a range of response capabilities are therefore needed that operate at different levels of risk. One wonders if the current casualty rate is sustainable and if the high threat C-IED operators are both in short supply and high demand is freedom of manoeuvre being compromised?
Whatever we do, we must recognise that the often irrational animosity between the RE and RLC has to stop, the growing and evolving threat, likely greater use of technology and reducing resources demand that inter service and cap badge politics is stomped on from a great height. There are very real and practical barriers to creating a single tri service organisation beyond the current ‘joint’ but still separate arrangements but we must tackle them decisively.
A completely new EOD Corps may be the ideal end state and could amalgamate the 4 entities currently involved and be responsible for all clearance activities. A separate Corps would be large enough to sustain a variety of career paths across a number of related trades, sustainability is one of the key issues that would need to be resolved.
A much greater use of technology should also be part of the new unit, the UK has yet again, given up its clear technical lead in related technologies, especially in robotics. Talisman is a clear step in the right direction but me must continue with this and expand it.
Traditional assault minefield breaching would be retained with the Royal Engineers and the ammunition technical trades transferred to a new function within the RLC, merged with the REME (more on this later)
In addition to the non assault clearance activities the new EOD Corps would also be heavily involved with demining activities in post conflict zones as part of a comprehensive overseas aid/emergency response package (this is going to be detailed in a future post) that includes elements of military and civilian capabilities.
With the increasing use of modular mine warfare equipment, especially in our C3 proposal, it might even be possible to task this new corps with underwater mine clearance as well.
This is only a tentative suggestion, one possible way to create and perhaps more importantly, sustain, a range of capabilities in the face of likely increasing/changing demand both at home and abroad. By creating a dedicated corps that takes responsibility for all munitions disposal activities across the three services the overall workload creates the need for a larger unit, in a larger unit there will be greater career opportunities for those hard pressed operators to move within.
The challenge in such a unit would be to increase the capability whilst maintaining quality and safety, a thorny issue currently being wrestled with by the professionals in all three services.
One of the commenters took offence to me calling the Pioneers grave diggers. I thought I should apologise for any offence but simply say it was a bit light hearted, banter, no offence intended whatsoever.
Have sense of humours sharply declined?
Think Defence is not in the business of upsetting or insulting people so once again, if the grave digger comment was out of order I apologise.
It has been removed and by way of penance, if any serving or former Pioneer wishes to send me an article on your past, present or future then I will publish it