FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Oct. 31, 2014) -- It looks like a giant rototiller, except the Army doesn't intend on planting gardens with it.
Instead, the M1271 Mine Clearing Vehicle is designed to plow through a minefield faster than ever before, and the Army Reserve is the first component to hop in the driver's seat and take a few home.
This week, the 364th Engineer Platoon (Area Clearance), was the first unit to receive team-based training here. They will be the first to take the mine clearing vehicle, which is also known as the Medium Flail, back to Arkansas.
"That makes me feel good knowing we're some of the ones paving the way for the whole Army and being the first ones to use this flail equipment," said Pvt. Matthew Joy, combat engineer and Medium Flail operator for the 364th En. Plt., headquartered in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
A total of 15 area clearance platoons -- three from the National Guard -- will eventually "field" this massive truck over the next 12 months. The Medium Flail weighs between 16-20 tons, depending on its configuration with road tires or foam-filled tires for combat.
The vehicle is designed with the driver's cab on one side and the flail arm on the other. When the arm spins, it whips a series of heavy-duty chains and "hammers" that strike the ground to demolish or even detonate mines in its path. The vehicle has a blast shield (shaped like a plow) that deflects any explosions away from the driver. The vehicle is also up-armored with three-quarter-inch thick steel that can withstand blasts from a tank.
"If we were actually clearing a minefield in combat, it allows us to move through the minefield quicker. It helps reduce the danger (for) my combat engineers," said Capt. Justin Warrick, of North Little Rock, Arkansas, company commander of the 806th Engineer Company, headquartered in Conway, Arkansas.
When the hammer arm is spinning, the vehicle typically drives less than a quarter-mile per hour to clear a field. Not exactly the Army's most blazing-fast truck.
"The slower the better. It's just the best thing ever. The slower you go, the more ground you're going to cover accurately. If you move too fast, you could skip spots and that could become a potential threat," said Spc. Fred Pennington, of Chicago, Illinois, Medium Flail operator with the 364th En. Plt.
As the Army saying goes, "Slow is smooth." Well, sort of.
Riding inside the cab is a bumpy experience. While driving across rough terrain, the vehicle wobbles and whips its passengers around like a carnival ride. The air-cushioned captain chairs make up for the lack of suspension in the vehicle, at least a little bit.
However, when the rotary arm kicks on, striking the ground with 70 chains and hammers at 3,500 revolutions per minute, the whole cab vibrates. Yet, sitting inside the cab is surprisingly quiet. The interior is padded with a soundproofing layer, and if it weren't for the huge clumps of dirt and rocks flinging around, passengers would hardly notice that the chains were spinning and chewing through dirt with massive force.
This week-long training is designed to teach Soldiers more than just how to run the machine. The platoon had to communicate and work as a team to clear specific paths. The vehicle is so big, visibility is limited, and the cab vibrates so much that if a mine were to detonate, the driver might not even notice it.
Therefore the team uses "spotters" located in various vehicles at a distance to communicate back with the flail driver by radio and guide him through the field. The platoon also learned how to recover and extract the vehicle in case it should become disabled due to a blast. The extraction process requires several Soldiers who sweep the area by foot and a bulldozer to tow the Medium Flail out of the area. This enforced the importance of teamwork, not just vehicle operation.
"You know the Army as a whole, we are a team, so the flail operators can't do it alone, because they're kicking up so much debris. It's hard to keep it on track (by yourself)," said Spc. Jacorrian Spears, combat engineer who served as a spotter for the platoon.
Though this is the first time the vehicle is being fielded, similar machines have existed for years, and have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is that this is the first time an Army unit specifically tasked to clear minefields will sign for the Medium Flail, and train with it on a regular basis. This particular vehicle model was first conceived in 2007. It took approximately seven years to reach the training and fielding stage, in part because of the units tasked to handle them.
In recent deployments, when battlefield commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan needed a minefield cleared, they would tag route clearance or combat engineer units who were not specialized in sweeping such a vast area. Route clearance Soldiers are trained to clear roads, looking for wires by foot, not entire fields. That's why, in 2012, the Army restructured several combat engineer platoons to specifically handle large areas.
Clearing a field with the Medium Flail can take from a few days up to several weeks, depending on the terrain type and size. The alternative option would be sweeping the same area by foot with metal detectors, officially known as AN/PSS-14 Mine Detection Sets.
"This is a much better concept, and it's faster than how it used to be. Because before, it would take a very long time to clear a minefield using mine detectors and manpower," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Carter, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, lead instructor for the five-day Medium Flail course.
The biggest challenge with assigning the mine clearance vehicle to specific units, is training. The flail chews through so much dirt at such a rapid pace that it requires an environmental permit to use, whether on or off a military installation.
"They're going to train on this for the long term, so you can't keep doing the same area. After a while it's moon dust. There's no training value for that, so you have to keep moving around," said Ronnie King, functional manager for explosive hazardous defeat systems at the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, headquartered at Fort Leonard Wood.
For that reason, area clearance platoons also receive a training DVD that will allow them to remain sharp on the controls in a virtual world. The Maneuver Support Center of Excellence staff also plans on including a replica Medium Flail station inside of a Virtual Clearance Training Suite trailer. These VCTS trailers already include "battle stations" that replicate other mine and bomb clearing vehicles, especially designed for combat engineers to use.
"With their own small transportable trailer, in a virtual environment, I could emplace mines, and do more than I could in a live training environment," said King.
Next fiscal year, the Army will begin fielding the M-160 Light Flail. The Light Flail weighs 6.5 tons, and is a smaller, remote-controlled version of its bigger brother, Medium Flail. This will be yet another tool in the combat engineer's arsenal to defeat enemy threats, conquer land and save lives.
"Mine fields are all around the world, and they're not going away unless we clear them. So, we know that our mission -- at least for today or until the world gets out of (using) mines -- is we have to have clearance equipment, and that's why we developed these vehicles," said King.