In South­ern Md., Navy lab seeks new ways to blow things up

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ian Dun­can

Even by the stan­dards of a mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion, Naval Sur­face War­fare Cen­ter In­dian Head can be a dan­ger­ous place.

The cen­ter on the Po­tomac River in South­ern Mary­land is where the Navy’s bomb mak­ers come up with new ways to blow things up.

Once ex­plo­sives and rock­ets are packed up and sent out, they’re rel­a­tively safe. But the raw in­gre­di­ents for bombs are much more volatile, and the safety mea­sures at the base are ex­ten­sive. More than 60 miles of steam pipes snake be­tween the build­ings, de­liv­er­ing heat with­out fur­naces, and spikes sev­eral sto­ries tall rise into the sky to cor­ral any light­ning that might strike.

“Light­ning and ex­plo­sives don’t mix,” said Robert Bea­gley, a bomb tester.

Mak­ing things ex­plode has been cen­tral to war­fare since the first guns were in­tro­duced to the bat­tle­field cen­turies ago. But Ash­ley John­son, the top civil­ian at the

If there’s a 10-point scale with the most pow­er­ful con­ven­tional ex­plo­sives at 1 and nuclear weapons at 10, In­dian Head’s team wants to find weapons that would fall at num­bers 2 or 3 or 4.

In­dian Head Ex­plo­sive Ord­nance Dis­posal Tech­nol­ogy Di­vi­sion, is wor­ried that in the last two decades the United States has put re­search into bomb mak­ing on the back burner, and risks los­ing its edge.

“There’s a feel­ing that it’s all been played out,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s true.”

Two years into the job, John­son is try­ing to re­or­ga­nize and rein­vig­o­rate his 2,000mem­ber team to main­tain the na­tion’s lead.

If there’s a 10-point scale with the most pow­er­ful con­ven­tional ex­plo­sives at 1 and nuclear weapons at 10, John­son says, he wants his team to find weapons that would fall at num­bers 2 or 3 or 4.

“Can we make rev­o­lu­tion­ary change?” he asked. “Yeah, I think we can.”

It’s not just ex­plo­sives. John­son’s team has re­spon­si­bil­ity for fu­els as well — “any­thing that burns or goes boom,” says Mike Adams, another In­dian Head of­fi­cial. The field’s proper name is en­er­get­ics.

New tech­nolo­gies could pro­vide the Navy with the means to de­liver more pow­er­ful at­tacks more pre­cisely, and to de­velop faster, far­ther-fly­ing mis­siles.

More pow­er­ful ex­plo­sives mean smaller weapons, sav­ing space and money.

Other ad­vances could make the shells that carry bombs into part of the weapon. And bet­ter fuses would en­sure that weapons stay in­ert un­til they’re fired — and blow up re­li­ably, once they are.

Now John­son is work­ing to shake the cen­ter out of its old ap­proach.

“Its func­tion was a fac­tory first,” he said. “What do fac­to­ries do? They take or­ders, they make stuff. ... We have to evolve now to a dif­fer­ent area where we’re do­ing more.”

The126-year-old com­plex sprawls across 1,900 acres on a penin­sula jut­ting into the Po­tomac south of Wash­ing­ton. Buried bunkers stuffed with weapons dot the base.

Cell­phones and other ra­dio trans­mit­ters are banned from the most sen­si­tive ar­eas. Work­ers put up lit­eral red flags when they are work­ing in­side a build­ing with ex­plo­sives so in an emer­gency, res­cue crews will know that they’re in­side.

Bea­gley says bomb test­ing re­quires a spe­cial kind of dis­ci­pline. Bomb testers must carry out com­plex sci­ence and engi­neer­ing work un­der pres­sure from com­man­ders eager to field new weapons with­out caus­ing ac­ci­dents.

Un­usu­ally for a mil­i­tary re­search com­plex, In­dian Head has fa­cil­i­ties for ev­ery­thing from ba­sic chem­istry re­search to in­dus­trial-scale pro­duc­tion.

That means the team mem­bers can start at the black­board work­ing out which com­bi­na­tions of chem­i­cals might yield a big­ger blast. From there, oth­ers can an­a­lyze how the new ex­plo­sives per­form. And fi­nally, they can be put into pro­duc­tion.

Bea­gley showed off a bombproof cham­ber lined with six feet of re­in­forced con­crete and an inch of steel plates. The room is de­signed to with­stand the blast from 50 pounds of ex­plo­sives — a suit­case full.

Bea­gley’s team watches ex­plo­sions us­ing cam­eras that can catch the ac­tion as it un­folds in a mat­ter of nanosec­onds.

A nanosec­ond is one bil­lionth of a sec­ond.

“We’re do­ing that for sci­en­tific pur­poses, not just for fun,” Bea­gley said. “It is fun,” Adams said be­hind him. Across the base is a three-story build­ing that holds equip­ment for mix­ing large quan­ti­ties of rocket fuel and other com­pounds. A gi­ant bowl ca­pa­ble of hold­ing al­most three tons of chem­i­cals stands in the mid­dle of the room be­neath a ma­chine that looks like a huge ver­sion of a mixer that you might have in your kitchen.

When the com­po­nents are loaded up and ready to go, the tech­ni­cians re­treat to a separate build­ing to op­er­ate the ma­chine. Spe­cial cam­eras are on the look­out for sparks; should any­thing go wrong, they can set off a sys­tem that quickly floods the fa­cil­ity with river wa­ter.

The end prod­uct — which re­sem­bles some­thing like pan­cake bat­ter — is trans­ferred by a spe­cial fork­lift truck to another build­ing, where it can be loaded into war­heads or rocket mo­tors.

Hav­ing all the fa­cil­i­ties close to­gether also serves to keep peo­ple safe.

“When you’re deal­ing with ma­te­ri­als like en­er­get­ics,” John­son said, “you don’t want to have to drive on the road with it.”

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