Navy’s bomb testers seek­ing new ways to blow things up

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY IAN DUN­CAN

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.

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