KEY WEST, Fla. –
Expeditionary Exploitation Unit 1 (EXU-1) and the FBI’s Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Section conducted a maritime post-blast investigation course at Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West, Florida, Jan. 19-28. The U.K. Royal Navy Diving and Threat Exploitation Group (DTXG) and three U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams, including technicians from EXU-1 and EOD Mobile Unit 3, collaborated to expand and develop their maritime post-blast exploitation techniques through seven days of classroom coursework, diving, and strategic case study analysis. The course coordinates the combined response of maritime exploitation capabilities by the Department of Defense, Department of Justice (DOJ), and the U.K. Royal Navy to global maritime explosive attacks from strategic competition in the maritime domain.
“Right now, EXU-1 and the FBI are the only ones doing this type of forensic investigation in this environment, so imparting that knowledge to others is imperative. The EOD community has a firm grasp on forensic collection for land-based fights, but the difficulties associated with collection of these same forensics in the underwater domain presents some unique challenges,” said EODCS Christopher Courtney, EXU-1’s Training Leading Chief Petty Officer and one of the organizers of the course.
Although EXU-1 is headquartered within sight of the Potomac River in Maryland, Courtney stressed that the only place this course could be successfully undertaken was at NAS Key West.
“NAS Key West has been critical in helping us accomplish training for this mission,” he said. “The area offers very diverse options for training personnel on shore and in the water environment, to include pools, quick access to clear open water and a port facility that mimics real-world atmospherics which these teams operate in. Water clarity, salinity levels and other factors are things we have to take into account when conducting these exercises.”
Courtney also explained the course was originally an effort between EXU-1 and the FBI’s C-IED Section to train and hone their proficiencies following an underwater post-blast event. Since its inception, however, the course has expanded to include other EOD units and NATO partners to train them in the collection and preservation of evidence from the underwater environment.
“The original post-blast investigation course was only five days, but has grown exponentially into a nearly two-week event,” said Michael McNair, an explosive operations specialist with the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and one of the co-founders of this course. “When we started thinking of creating an underwater post-blast forensic collection course, we knew we needed the U.S. Navy involved if it was going to be done right. Between the FBI and EXU-1, we are really the gold standard for this type of training.”
EOD divers participating in the course collected evidence simulating an underwater post-blast event. This evidence is then transferred to EXU-1’s mobile forensics facility where technicians use a variety of technical and forensic techniques to determine as much as possible about what transpired during the event. Although there are plenty of opportunities for hands-on training, what occurs in the classroom is also just as important. During the week, attendees attend briefing from subject matter experts on topics like underwater blast effects on ships, as well as actual case studies on recent post-blast incidents.
One such briefing given by U.K. Royal Navy DTXG Commanding Officer Cdr. Sean Heaton, who described the investigation of a series of underwater bombings to oil tankers transiting near the Strait of Hormuz in 2019. Heaton — who was recognized in 2020 as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) after overseeing the safe disposal of a 500-pound World War II era Luftwaffe bomb found at London’s King George V Docks — discussed how the investigation into these series of bombings required not just his technical training as an EOD officer, but the necessary crime scene investigation techniques to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and make logical deductions into who and what was responsible for the attacks.
Cdr. Heaton also stressed the collaboration with EXU-1 as a means of success and excellence for both countries, since exploiting these scenarios in the same way allows for good information to be gained and shared.
“In terms of our outlook on current geopolitical events, what helps is having both of our groups looking at the same problem sets. Working together, information exchange is quite easy and prevents numerous delays. We are often in the same places and operating jointly, so our partnership constantly sharpens our skillsets and allows us to be more prepared,” he said. “Different events tie into intelligence gathering which we can all share with each other. That is critical because it allows us to be on the same page with one another before conflict happens. So when conflict does happen, we are all prepared.”
EXU-1 is an operationally deployable Type II, Echelon V command aligned under Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division (NSWC IHD). The unit hosts a variety of platoons designed to collect, process, exploit and analyze improvised threats, advanced weapons systems, munitions, ordnance, unmanned systems, and strategic infrastructure on land and sea to provide real-time targeting information and intelligence to EOD forces. EXU-1 was commissioned in June 2018 as an Echelon V afloat command and reports to NSWC IHD Commanding Officer Capt. Eric Correll, who serves as the immediate superior in command to EXU-1.
NSWC IHD — a field activity of the Naval Sea Systems Command and part of the Navy’s Science and Engineering Establishment — is the leader in ordnance, energetics, and EOD solutions. The Division focuses on energetics research, development, testing, evaluation, in-service support, manufacturing and disposal; and provides warfighters solutions to detect, locate, access, identify, render safe, recover, exploit and dispose of explosive ordnance threats.