Supported by the European Defence Agency, the exercise (18 Oct-9 Nov) gathered some 650 staff from 10 EU Member States - Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden - as well as Norway and the United States. The objective of this extraordinary come-together of C-IED experts, an organisational and logistical challenge brilliantly mastered by the Italian host, was to exchange and train technical skills, integrate and use available technical enablers and implement the full C-IED operational cycle with a view to improving interoperability and resilience among European and allied C-IED capabilities in the fight against evolving IED threats, both in military and counter-terrorism operations.

Live exercise, real conditions

The live part of the exercise saw the multination expert teams plan, decide and perform all types of C-IED activities on the ground, based on a fictive but realistic scenario featuring all the ingredients and challenges any national or multinational military operation (EU, NATO, UN, etc.) faces today under real circumstances. “The exercise scenario is actually a previously used one that we adapted in such a way that it fits the conditions and reality of an EU CSDP operation outside Europe, with a specific and realistic C-IED sub-scenario encompassing all challenges, including fighting multiple, asymmetric IED attacks, from the simplest improvised devices to the most sophisticated drones”, explains Lieutenant Colonel Alessandro Ortolani from the Italian Army, one of the main exercise scenario planners. This exercise followed a more ambitious and sophisticated approach than the two previous editions “in the sense that this time, we also used specific intelligence to analyse the perpetrators of IED attacks. We want to know how they think and work, who is behind, what tactics and materials they use, so to be able to better understand and prevent their attacks in the future”, he stresses.

All C-IED actors involved

All C-IED aspects were involved and represented, from planning in joint task force headquarters, military search, route clearance and weapons intelligence, to combat engineering, Explosive Ordnance Disposal/Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (EOD/IEDD), manual neutralisation techniques and technical exploitation. They were all organised inside one specific multinational C-IED taskforce, a first in a BISON COUNTER exercise.

EDA-grown initiatives, such as the Joint Deployable Exploitation and Analysis Laboratory (JDEAL) now permanently established in Soesterberg (The Netherlands) and the Vienna-based European Centre for Manual Neutralisation Capabilities (ECMAN) were also present in Sardinia, playing key roles in the C-IED chain trained on the ground. The operational benefits of participating in BISON COUNTER are immense, says Major Marco Pennisi (Italian Armed Forces) who is Training Branch Chief at JDEAL: “During the exercise, we have the possibility to test together what we have trained together at the JDEAL in Soesterberg. There, we just don’t have such realistic field conditions to do that. Here, our labs are constantly fed with evidence of all sorts coming from the live exercise. It means that we have to work under very challenging conditions, including time pressure, that are very close to the reality of multinational military missions out there. This allows us to test what in a is going well, but also what is missing or should be improved”. The cooperation done at JDEAL is already having effects on how crews from different countries operate together on the ground, he stresses: “We can clearly see this during exercises like BISON COUNTER. I can see progress everywhere!”.

Similar positive feedback comes from an ECMAN crew member participating in the exercise: “In the manual neutralisation techniques (MNT) domain, this BISON COUNTER 21 exercise has broken new ground because, for the first time, participating Member States have sent their national assets to be used on the ground. This allowed us to actually test our respective capabilities on the ground, under real conditions. We know that each Member States has top-notch MTN teams, but to make them work together seamlessly and efficiently is a much bigger challenge”.

Lessons to be learned

Even though it is too early to draw final operational conclusions from BISON COUNTER 21 - this important follow-on part of the exercise will only be completed by February 2022 - the overall initial assessment of the achievements is more than positive. In other words: the exercise clearly delivered on its main objectives. “We were happy and proud to act as the host nation of this important exercise for the entire European military community. I think we were successful in delivering a realistic scenario and am confident that the lessons we will identify from Bison Counter 21 will be useful in planning and conducting future similar events”, concludes General Filippo Gabriele, the Italian General overseeing and directing the exercise.

Immediate reactions from participants were overwhelmingly positive. “Exercises such as BISON COUNTER are the only way for Member States’ C-IED teams work and train together on the ground, exchange their best practices, merge their capabilities and develop joint standards. At home, we don’t have the possibility to do that in a multinational context”, said Captain Christian Berger, Austrian C-IED Commander.

Which does not mean that some aspects could not be further improved in the future. “I think that the coordination between the different working levels involved in the exercise - strategic, tactical, operational - could be further improved to better take into account the specific challenges, needs and requirements of the people that actually do the job on the ground. This is particularly important because those boots on the ground are highly specialised. Therefore, they need to be heard”, explains Captain Berger.

There is always room for improvement”, adds Corporal Julian Tellez Mutis, Commander of the Spanish K9 (dog) team at BISON COUNTER 21. “For instance, during our training sessions with the dogs, we could try to have even more samples of explosives available and tested during the exercise. It would be good if we could further broaden up the range of materials that we use in the trainings, including new types of samples not yet known to everyone. The more we use and train, the better”.

EDA to play a leading role in future exercises

As it was the case in the two previous editions, EDA was closely involved in the organisation and running of BISON COUNTER 21 which had integrated several Agency projects such as the afore-mentioned JDEAL and ECMAN, but also the Military Search Capability Building (MSCB). Going forward, EDA’s role will be even bigger as it is the Agency’s ambition to pursue the series of Bison Counter exercises beyond the 2021 edition in a more structured, comprehensive and coherent manner.

An important step in that direction will be the launch, beginning of 2022 by 13 Member States, of a new EDA project (“Cat B”) which foresees at least three additional editions of Bison Counter in 2023, 2025 and 2027. The project will also establish a permanent expert team in charge of the planning of the exercises and its subsidiary activities, both at the conceptual and technical level.

This means that the joint planning and organisation of future BISON COUNTER exercises will become more centralised and structured under EDA’s auspices in close cooperation, of course, with the future host countries. As a result, this should further enhance the coordination and coherence among all participating C-IED actors at all different levels, from strategy to tactics to operations”, says Pedro Basto, EDA’s C-IED Project Officer.

Having the exercise prepared and organised under EDA auspices “will help to even further streamline our work and move towards commons standards”, anticipates Major Pennisi from JDEAL. It should also help mitigate minor communication issues between the different working levels operating in multination C-IED missions, as previously mentioned by Austrian Captain Berger. “The fact that BISON COUNTER is going to be a proper EDA project, and therefore become more structured and centralised, can certainly help to improve this communication with the operational people on the ground”, he says.

Finally, the envisaged more structured approach should also help to better analyse the exercise results and implement a consolidated lessons learned cycle which is essential for moving towards even more sophisticated and interoperable C-IED capabilities in Europe.