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Bespoke bomb disposal – Q&A with Ramora CEO David Welch

05 Mar 2012 (Last Updated March 5th, 2012 18:30)

Bomb disposal techniques honed by the UK Royal Navy are being used to protect commercial shipping operations. Julian Turner talks to David Welch, CEO of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist Ramora UK, about innovations in bomb disposal technology, the escalating threat of IEDs and the changing nature of maritime security.

Bespoke bomb disposal – Q&A with Ramora CEO David Welch

David Welch is the CEO of Ramora UK, a company which provides specialist explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) services to governments, corporations, the military and law enforcement agencies worldwide. He previously served in the Royal Navy, where he spent much of his career running diving teams specialising in mine clearance and improvised explosive device disposal (IEDD). He left the armed forces in 2005 as a Lieutenant Commander.

Julian Turner: Tell us about Ramora’s range of services and how the company has evolved since its formation in 2004.

"Initially, we looked to provide a maritime bomb disposal service dealing with waterborne ordnance, but we’ve now evolved as a company."

David Welch: We recognised that military bomb disposal services were becoming less inclined to support the civilian sector.

The oil and gas industry in particular was struggling to convince the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to deploy assets to help it with bomb disposal, and we set out to fill this emerging gap in a relatively new market. We secured one of the major oil and gas companies almost from day one.

Initially, we looked to provide a maritime bomb disposal service dealing with waterborne ordnance, but we’ve now evolved into a company that provides three key outputs.

One is consultancy in all things explosive. Second is training in every aspect of bomb disposal, be it counter-terrorism or dealing with bombs and mines. Finally, our most prolific output is the bomb disposal teams that we deploy around the world, to deal with everything from a 2,000lb mine on an oil pipeline to a firework in someone’s waste recycling system.

JT: How is Ramora’s work divided between government institutions and corporate clients?

DW: Ramora is the only company of its type under contract to the UK Government and we carry out work for the Department of Transport. Roughly 90% of our ordnance disposal services in the UK are focused on commercial entities – oil and gas, renewables, waste recycling – and the rest is under a government contract for the UK Coastguard.

Training wise, at least 80% of our work is overseas for the ministry of interior at military agencies.

JT: Can you describe some of the memorable projects the company has been involved in?

DW: We recently conducted what we believe to be a world record for commercial bomb disposal companies – dealing with an item of ordnance at a depth of nearly 1,200m.

Adjacent to an oil and gas subsea asset was a British buoyant mine containing 500lb of explosives and, because of the depth, all of the conventional procedures went out the window. It was so deep that the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) took half an hour to get to the bottom.

We’ve also dealt with quite a few British and German bombs from both the First and Second World Wars on offshore wind farms. The attitude used to be ‘oh, we’ll never find anything’, but companies are learning very quickly that unexploded ordnance (UXO) poses a very real threat.

The last item we exploded at sea measured 2.3 on the Richter Scale and generated a 200-300ft plume of water.

JT: Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) training is a fundamental part of your business. How has Ramora adapted its training practices in response to different scenarios in the field?

DW: We use former Royal Navy divers with extensive military training, but even if people come to us with 50 years of EOD experience, we train them up again.

We take a very systematic approach. You move the item to a safe area if you need to, then you place a slightly smaller countermining charge adjacent to it to import some energy into the item so the explosives within it will detonate and consume the contents.

The end goal is always to detonate the item in situ. As for diffusing bombs and mines, that’s a Hollywood thing. It’s just not something that people do in the day-to-day routine of EOD.

JT: War-fighters on land are increasingly under attack from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Describe the technology Ramora employs to counter these threats in a maritime environment.

DW: For traditional bomb disposal we use subsea acoustic systems to detonate charges.

Built-in code systems allow you to separate yourself from the target rather than having a piece of burning fuse and a det cord leading to the surface, a system that is still in use by military teams worldwide.

There have been huge advances in terms of the surveillance of IED devices. You are dealing with different levels of risk, everything from the cutting of wires, which is very rare, to, say, remote methods of disarming with a scapel system, disrupting devices with a stand-off water jet.

Devices such as remote control systems and mobile phones are used to detonate devices, but the radio frequency (RF) environment can be controlled much better now thanks to huge advances in electronics technology.

As a result, terrorists are reverting back to simplistic bits of equipment, which often makes the task more challenging.

JT: In your opinion, how significant is the threat of piracy and terrorism to naval defence and commercial maritime operations?

DW: It’s down to the imagination and the willingness of the terrorist to become a maritime warrior and that is something that, thankfully, doesn’t seem to appeal to the vast majority. The landscape is changing, however.

"As a commercial company we are able to upgrade our technology much faster than the military because they are constrained."

It’s a relatively simple step to shift your focus from an aviation target to a maritime one. You could get yourself a floating canister, put some explosives in it, rig it up to a power unit and put some pressure switches on the top.

Drop these improvised drifting mines in the Solent at the right end of the tide and they’ll just go backwards and forwards until one detonates. Or you could simply report it in, the impact on the economy of the area would be significant.

Buying a small submersible is also easy to do now – you can pick up a submarine on eBay. The Tamil Tigers, for example, use lots of maritime-based terrorism equipment, relatively low-level technology, such as subtugs and limpet mines.

You could cause a high degree of economic damage, if not worse, in the UK by using them.

JT: The Royal Navy has its own EOD experts. Where do you fit in and how do your training and consultancy services dovetail with those of the MoD?

DW: The MoD provides bomb disposal in the UK as part of a legacy agreement with the police, known as Military Aid to the Civil Power (MACP).

In the 1980s and 1990s it was available to everybody, now it’s only available to you and I if we find a hand grenade in our back garden.

If you are commercial entity building a block of flats or installing a wind farm you are responsible for the removal of all hazardous waste from that site. Put simply, the MoD said, ‘taxpayer money is not paying for this, go and find your own solution’.

We have a good relationship with the MoD. They want to make sure their personnel are available for the important stuff overseas, so they have their remit and they stop at a certain point. Ramora picks up from there. As a commercial company we are able to upgrade our technology much faster than the military because they are constrained by the procurement process.

JT: What are the government policies or laws relating to the working practices of private companies such as Ramora?

"David Welch is the CEO of Ramora UK, a company which provides specialist explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) services to governments and corporations."

DW: I am appalled to tell you that there really aren’t any. The key point here is that this is a very new industry sector and any new legislation in the UK takes a long time to come into force.

The only real rules out there govern the purchase and storage of explosives [the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005 (MSER) issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)].

In terms of the use of explosives and bomb disposal activities, there’s little or no guidance. We’ve worked with the Crown Estate and various other bodies to produce one for the marine aggregate sector. Ramora is probably the only company carrying out EOD the way that the military do it and that is a worry.

There are people out there doing things in a very low-cost way, which clients obviously like, and non-compliant. It is only a matter of time before people on-site and members of the public are injured.

JT: Could you give some examples of state-of-the-art technology that is set to transform the maritime security industry?

DW: There’s a lot of movement around ground penetrating radar and remote-controlled boats, which are used for various search techniques and offshore operations – they can even have weapons mounted on them similar to UAVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

Detection systems could be improved hugely. Looking through objects is always a challenge and trying to find a wire in a device can get interesting without a full picture.

Making everything remote is a good step because it increases your footprint and takes your manpower away from the point of danger. Unfortunately, the terrain or other restrictions mean that manpower is the only option.