A race to get a new bomb for cave war

Weapon: An inspired team of scientists in Maryland rushed to build a device that could wipe out the mountain hideouts of Taliban and al-Qaida forces.

August 04, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Destruction of the cave's mouth was frighteningly complete. The bomb had skipped through the entrance and erupted in a violent spray of jagged steel, blasting the walls and floor into dust. Where there was wood, suddenly just ash and vapor.

Anh Duong was not impressed. Two months earlier, as American soldiers began the perilous mission of flushing terrorists from the caves of Afghanistan, she and her colleagues had promised to build a powerful new weapon to aid in the fight. Unlike typical bombs, which only blow open a cave's entrance, theirs would create a "thermobaric" blast that could billow through underground passageways, around corners, destroying and killing things deep inside.

Success was imperative. American troops, lacking such a weapon, had already begun the dangerous task of attacking the caves on foot. But the pursuit was also personal for Duong in ways that few people knew or understood. She owed this bomb to the United States, by her measure. Yet as she wandered through the wreckage after its first full-scale test, Duong saw nothing to prove that her deadly device could do its job.

"I'm normally a fairly calm and level-headed scientist, sure of my technical experience, but I was nervous. The country needed this weapon so badly," Duong said. "A big blast at the opening of the tunnel didn't tell us anything. I was anxious. I needed to see more."

No one at the Nevada Test Site that day in December understood the ferocity of what they had just done, however, because the evidence wasn't in the test cave. The first hint was on the opposite side of the mountain, where the blast had ripped a steel grate off a ventilation shaft and flung it aside like paper.

The definitive proof, in fact, existed only as computer data, collected by an array of sensors and gauges lining the tunnel from front to back. The blast had thundered deep into the belly, the data showed, and heat and pressure intensified long after an explosion should have died. Most bomb blasts are absorbed by mountains; yet this one had snaked around a horseshoe-shaped curve and launched out the back with enough force to tear a man apart, 1,100 feet from where it began.

The final results took days to calculate, but the conclusion was remarkable and unambiguous: The BLU-118/B was a horrifying success.

As war raged in Afghanistan, and U.S. troops scoured the eastern mountains in search of Osama bin Laden and his followers, Duong and a team of scientists and engineers in Southern Maryland had built the proverbial secret weapon. By jiggering the chemistry in a standard military explosive, they had conjured up a new bomb whose blast could crush bones and rupture organs nearly a quarter-mile away.

Much of the world would gasp. Greenpeace called it inhumane; a Russian geologist blamed it for deadly earthquakes; critics would dub the weapon "thermo-barbaric" - so unfathomably lethal that it should never have been created.

Fulfilling an obligation

But, for Duong, a former refugee from Vietnam who came to the United States in 1975 and studied science in Maryland's public schools and universities, it would fulfill an obligation that she had pledged to repay her whole adult life.

When she settled in Maryland 27 years ago, Duong promised herself she would fight for the principles of her adopted homeland. And now, if all went as planned, the BLU-118/B would slice into a tunnel in the Afghan mountains, unleash the chemically engineered hell that she and the rest of the country's top explosives experts had wrought, and America's enemies would die.

"It was different than anything we had done before," said Duong. "Not making a new explosive; we've done that. But having a purpose - knowing where it was going and what it was going to be used for. This was one of the proudest achievements of my life. Not just professionally, but personally. We were fighting a war. And it was the chance for me to give something back to the country that had adopted me so generously."

The fight didn't begin in a cave, but rather in a leafy residential neighborhood in suburban Alexandria, Va., inside a building that could pass as the local elementary school. There, hidden among the cracked driveways and bikes on the lawns, with no sign outside to indicate what is within, are offices of the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

`Tunnel defeat weapon'

Lt. Col. Tom Ward arrived there in July last year. The Department of Defense was worried about subterranean nuclear stockpiles in North Korea and had enlisted Ward to develop a "tunnel defeat weapon" that could punch inside caves and clean them out.

Ward had never built a bomb, but he was a veteran project manager and knew the routine. He met with the scientists and the contractors, ran the numbers, prepared a schedule and wrote a proposal to make 10 to 20 warheads that would use an untested thermobaric explosive. The project would take three years, he figured, and cost about $67 million.

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