Navy’s bomb testers seeking new ways to blow things up
INDIAN HEAD, MD. | 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 to the fleet, 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 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 over other countries.
“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, Mr. Johnson is trying to reorganize and reinvigorate his 2,000-member team at Indian Head to maintain the nation’s lead.
He describes his goal: If there’s a 10-point scale, with the most powerful conventional explosives at one and nuclear weapons at 10, Mr. Johnson wants his team to find weapons that would fall at numbers two or three or four.
“Can we make revolutionary change?” he said. “Yeah, I think we can.”
It’s not just explosives. Mr. 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 developed at Indian Head could provide the Navy with the means to deliver more powerful attacks more precisely, and to develop faster, farther-flying missiles.
More powerful explosives means 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 Mr. 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.”
The 126-year-old complex of research, testing and manufacturing facilities sprawls across 1,900 acres on a peninsula jutting into the Potomac south of the District. 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.