Las Vegas Review-Journal January 21, 2002
Bomb technology goes underground
By Tony Batt
WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 14, an F-15 Eagle combat jet from the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida took off from Nellis Air Force Base, flew over the middle of the Nevada Test Site and dropped a newly designed laser-guided bomb into a tunnel about 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Rushed into production after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the tunnel-blasting device -- called a thermobaric bomb -- tested successfully, according to E.C. 'Pete' Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon branch, said the Nevada experiment 'culminated a two-month accelerated effort to produce a weapon with improved lethality against underground facilities.'
Shortly after the success of the Nevada test, 10 of the new and unusually powerful thermobaric bombs were scheduled to be deployed to Southern Asia. But so far, the bombs have not been used in Afghanistan, and a Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said at this point the weapons might never be deployed in the region. The production of the thermobaric bomb resulted from a partnership among the Department of Energy, Navy, Air Force and Defense Threat Reduction Agency, according to Capt. Joe Della Vedova, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
The test site was chosen for the experiment because it is a facility 'specifically designed to deal with tunnels storing chemical or biological weapons,' said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a defense policy Web site.
'Obviously, Nevada has a long association with weapons of mass destruction,' Pike said, referring to underground nuclear blasts at the test site, which ended in September 1992.
Experiments to determine how to penetrate and collapse tunnels at the test site have been going on for the past three or four years, according to Derek Scammell, a test site spokesman.
'This all falls under the work for other (agencies) we started when (nuclear) testing ended in 1992,' Scammell said.
Under development for two years, the thermobaric bomb was rushed into production as a direct result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Della Vedova said.
'It was fast-tracked when we realized it would be very effective in clearing people out of caves,' Della Vedova said.
Before Sept. 11, the government planned to wait until this year to test the thermobaric bomb, Pike said. 'The test on Dec. 14 is the only one I know about, and they did it in a hurry,' Pike said.
The thermobaric bomb -- 'thermo' refers to heat and 'baric' to barometric pressure -- features a two-stage explosion. The first blast occurs upon the bomb's penetration of a cave or tunnel and scatters explosive dust throughout the area where the bomb has landed. This is followed a fraction of a second later by a second, larger explosion that literally sucks oxygen out of a cave or tunnel.
'Instead of boom, this bomb goes BOOOOOOOM,' Della Vedova said.
Its powder-based explosive gives the thermobaric bomb a longer burn in confined spaces than the liquid explosive in the 5,000-pound bunker-buster bombs used during the Persian Gulf War, Della Vedova said.
One of the advantages of the thermobaric bomb is that it could reduce the need to use ground troops to infiltrate caves and tunnels where booby traps and ambushes abound.
But by obliterating caves and tunnels, the thermobaric bomb also makes it more difficult to recover any evidence to determine whether a mission has been achieved.
'This thing kills the earthworms,' Della Vedova said.
The thermobaric bomb was developed by the Naval Surface Weapons Center, Indian Head Division in Charles County, Md. It is one of two new weapons produced for the war in Afghanistan. The other is an earth-penetrating bomb placed on a cruise missile, Aldridge said in a Dec. 21 news briefing at the Pentagon.
Scammell said he does not know of plans for additional tests similar to the thermobaric experiment on Dec. 14.
Copyright 2002 DR Partners d/b Las Vegas Review-Journal