U.S. Contractors Work to Destroy, Recycle Munitions in Iraq
By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Nov. 10, 2005 "Fire in the Hole, Fire in the Hole, Fire in the Hole."
Within seconds of that radio announcement, a fiery blast shoots skyward. Second, third and fourth blasts follow in rapid succession. Only then does the concussion hit spectators a mile and a half away -- not as sound but as a shock wave. In less time than it takes to regain equilibrium, smoke plumes coalesce into a thick cloud rising hundreds of feet over the desert.
Twelve separate detonations have destroyed roughly 100 tons of munitions that will no longer pose a threat to the Iraqi people and multinational forces.
"When U.S. troops arrived, they weren't sure how big a weapons stockpile Iraq had," said Wayne Shaw, program manager for the Army Engineering and Support Center's Coalition Munitions Clearance Program. "At the request of the U.S. military, the center sent two people in April and May 2003 to survey the situation; they ran into so much (ordnance) that active military would have been inundated."
The staggering quantity of munitions caches would have tied up military demolition professionals, but it also would have required guarding each cache until it was destroyed. To free up soldiers for active missions, the military tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to designate and secure six depot sites for consolidating and destroying munitions gathered from smaller sites throughout the country.
Since August 2003, the corps' Huntsville, Ala., center has provided specialized support in Iraq for the munitions-clearance program, which has overseen the destruction of nearly 320,000 tons of munitions. Highest priority for destruction was anything over 60 mm (larger than soda cans) -- mortars, rockets and bombs most likely to be wired into improvised explosive devises and planted alongside roadways or hidden in vehicles.
"Some of the most devastating were the 155 mm projectiles," explained Curtis Bevington, a quality assurance specialist in ammunition surveillance. "They fit in the trunk of a car. One person can lift them. Easy to carry and bury. We've destroyed thousands of them here at Buckmaster."
Buckmaster is one of two collection depots where U.S. contractor ECC International was hired to manage and destroy existing and arriving munitions. In addition to its 100 earth-covered bunkers (igloos) and over 200 "revetments" (open-air storage), three other nearby ammunition-supply points were the responsibility of Buckmaster's crew. The depot's 400 workers, half of them from nearby communities, worked 12-hour days and six-day weeks for a year to destroy what seemed to be a never-ending supply of munitions, especially as the U.S. military frequently arrived with newly captured material.
Most ordnance could be crated, forklifted onto trucks, and moved straight to demolition pits. However, scavengers had raided nearly all the magazines, dumping propellants and explosives as they pilfered brass casings. In addition, several storage magazines had been blown up, scattering more than 300,000 pieces of highly unstable unexploded ordnance, or UXO, over a wide area.
"Ordnance becomes UXO when it is fired, launched or dropped and fails to detonate," said Jerry Stone, one of three senior unexploded-ordnance supervisors with ECC International. He identifies what is old or unstable and best blown in place. Such professionals and a rigidly enforced safety program contributed to more than 1 million man-hours without a lost-time explosive safety incident at Buckmaster. "Get rid of this stuff and it's one less thing terrorists can use in their operation," he said.
There was plenty to get rid of. Over the past century Iraq had accumulated a deadly expo of world weaponry. Some munitions were found to be packed with wax and sand, while others were completely empty. Golden weapons turned up at one site. Ammunition and muzzle-loaders were found that dated back to 1890, when the area was part of the Ottoman Empire. Workers found thousands of British mortar rounds from as early as 1933, bullets inscribed with swastikas, and more than 3 million rounds of 8 mm Russian small-arms ammunition dated to 1935-1936.
Buckmaster's daily demolition target was 100 tons of munitions, of which roughly one quarter to one half was "net explosive weight," the weight of the actual explosive material. The remainder consisted of material to deliver the explosive or to generate shrapnel to maximize casualties. Even with strict load limits at the six original demo pits, "rogue frag," occasional far-flying shrapnel, threatened neighboring houses. The company's long-term solution was to lease four farms. Enlarging the "exclusionary zone," or safe perimeter, allowed the number of pits to double and the amount of explosive per pit to increase, enabling the daily target to be reached.
One method for reducing demo pit fragmentation is to intersperse "donor material," highly explosive material, with "feature items," those weapons intended for destruction. Particularly useful for this purpose are out-of-date munitions, which can no longer be relied upon, and landmines, which can no longer be used. In addition to the 410,000 mines captured in Iraq, more than 100,000 mines were shipped from the U.S. for use as donor material. "Taking what's in the demilitarization account and using it for donor material saves money and frees up resources for the active military," Shaw said.
Another Buckmaster cost saving came from engaging a recycler to collect and remove salvageable wood and metal. The Iraqi businessman makes his income solely through resale, with brass being the big-ticket item. When more laborers were needed on site, the contractor helped a local businessman recruit and manage a labor force, which helped the Corps of Engineers give something back to the community in which it operates.
After successfully destroying countless pounds of munitions, the group's mission changed. Officials decided specialists should identify serviceable munitions for use by the Iraqi military.
"The contract originally called for destruction of all munitions," explained Bob Weis, the corps' project manager. He's been with the munitions-clearance program since mid-2004, and arrived at Buckmaster a year later. "When it was decided to save some for the Iraqi army, we had to get (ammunition-surveillance specialists) involved."
"Our mission now is to recondition what could be useful for the Iraqi army," Bevington explained. In its current condition, much of the ordnance was unusable. Munitions were stacked without pallets. Boxes contained mortars but no propellant. "We're here to help the Iraqis learn to manage their munitions so they'll be able to defend themselves," he said.
Retired Col. Dan Tompkins, ECC International's new site manager at Buckmaster, performed similar inspection and destruction work in Saudi Arabia after Operation Desert Storm and in Thailand after Vietnam. This is his first time doing this work as a civilian and the first time his job focuses not on destroying but rebuilding. Tompkins is mentoring Iraqi forces who will take over depot operations.
Contractors at Buckmaster recently finished destroying 33,000 tons of ordnance, leaving only one Corps of Engineers site, Arlington, with munitions awaiting destruction. The Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq will maintain Buckmaster and Arlington as storage depots where procured ammunition can be received, safely inventoried and stored, and issued to the new Iraqi army. The corps is now turning attention to UXO clearance around Iraq, assembling remote teams to evaluate caches, destroy them in place or transport them to depots such as Buckmaster.
"There's never a dull day," Shaw admitted. "The food's good, and the work's challenging."
(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International in Baghdad under contract with the Army Engineering and Support Center's Coalition Munitions Clearance Program.)