Assess and Destroy: We Are Ready
The call comes in to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity Recovered Chemical Materiel Directorate (CMA RCMD): a munition, possibly filled with chemical agent, has been recovered near an old chemical weapons burial site at a U.S. military installation. The RCMD response to assess and possibly destroy the munition is categorized as "unplanned," but there is nothing unplanned about RCMD's response.
Headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Maryland, RCMD provides centralized management and direction to the Department of Defense for the assessment and disposal of recovered chemical warfare materiel (RCWM). When items are identified as chemical, RCMD treatment technologies safely and effectively neutralize them while protecting operators, the community and the environment.
But none of this happens without its stellar Logistics and Maintenance (L&M) program, ensuring a constant state of readiness - a top priority for RCMD.
"We have to be ready when a mission comes up," said RCMD Logistics Team Lead John Marks, "and you don't do that just by sitting back and waiting for go-time!"
RCMD missions can range from an unplanned single munition response to the planned destruction of hundreds, even thousands of chemical warfare items recovered during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (USACE) environmental remediation of an old chemical weapons burial site. Historically, burial was an internationally accepted practice for safe chemical weapons disposal.
When Munitions and Explosives of Concern (MEC) are periodically recovered from formerly used defense sites or active arsenals during remediation efforts, RCMD deploys a response team to the site, using non-intrusive assessment technologies to analyze the munition contents without opening it, greatly reducing risk to the public and first responders. Once it is determined that an item contains chemical agent, operators package it for safe transport and storage until it can be destroyed.
The workhorse of RCMD's chemical weapons destruction program is the transportable Explosive Destruction System, or EDS, which provides on-site destruction and neutralization of chemical warfare materiel. The EDS uses explosive cutting charges to access a munition and eliminate its explosive components before neutralizing its chemical fill. The system's main component, a sealed, stainless-steel vessel, contains all the blast, vapor and fragments from the process - an innovative alternative to the open detonation of explosively configured munitions.
Although the EDS operation is in the mission spotlight, there would be no EDS operation without L&M working behind the scenes, constantly maintaining the equipment and guaranteeing a trained crew and a steady supply of spare parts and consumables.
Mr. Laurence Gottschalk, Director RCM, agrees. "Logistics and Maintenance are often the unsung heroes of any successful military operation, said Gottschalk. "Without a sound L&M program, you are not postured to fight the fight and win the mission.
"It's our job to make sure all the equipment is ready when we need it," said RCMD Maintenance Coordinator Terry Spickler, "so one of our main responsibilities is making sure the equipment is always operational."
As part of that effort, L&M must also keep an up-to-date library of all the equipment drawings and manuals - no small feat.
"If you go to the field, and you have to work on equipment or troubleshoot something, you need the right drawings and the right parts manuals," Marks said. "That may sound simple, but with five different EDS systems, RCMD has over a thousand drawings and numerous manuals that we maintain."
Because RCMD's transportable assessment and destruction technologies can be deployed nationwide, wherever suspect chemical warfare materiel is recovered, L&M must track the equipment and provide support. On any given day, there may be an EDS in Arkansas, a Mobile Munitions Assessment System in Alabama and an Interim Holding Facility for recovered munition storage in Washington, D.C.
"We have to know the location of the equipment and its status, and we use an automated logistics management system to help us do that," Spickler said.
This finely-tuned system also tracks work orders and maintains inventory control. RCMD maintains warehouses at APG for its inventory of technology, spare parts and consumables, with the exception of explosives, which are stored by the manufacturer in Tennessee.
L&M assigns a supply trailer customized to each EDS system, so when it is deployed, its trailer goes with it.
"Supply trailers are really mobile warehouses, equipped with everything we think we would need plus additional parts and pieces," Marks said. "We've been doing this long enough to know what should be on each trailer."
RCMD also has a robust Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) program, which constantly works to modernize equipment and systems, protecting the Army's science and technology investments.
When RDT&E develops a new EDS feature - for example, a munition holder that can accommodate a variety of munition sizes - L&M has the item manufactured and determines how many to keep in stock.
When chemical warfare destruction is your responsibility, complacency is not an option. Training also falls under the purview of L&M. Each member of the EDS workforce completes knowledge-based and on-the-job training and testing to learn the requirements of the task and mission execution. Spickler manages the training at RCMD's Chemical Demilitarization Training Facility at APG.
"We do initial training and refresher training for destruction operators," Spickler said. "We hire our partners on the Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team to operate our technology, but RCMD is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the people on site are qualified to operate the equipment."
When asked about challenges L&M has encountered over the years, Marks and Spickler have to give it a lot of thought - a testament to just how well this team does its job.
RCMD also supports the destruction of stockpile chemical weapons at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (PCAPP). Located at Pueblo Chemical Depot (PCD), Colorado, PCAPP uses an automated process to destroy PCD's remaining chemical weapons stockpile as required by international treaty. RCMD deployed the EDS for two successful campaigns between 2015 and 2018 to neutralize hundreds of problematic munitions that could not be processed through PCAPP's automated system.
"If we do our job right, L&M is invisible to the system operators," said Marks. "One of our biggest challenges in recent years has been keeping an adequate number of consumables on site for long-term projects, such as PCAPP."
"It's all about communications and staying two steps ahead," said Spickler. "We maintained regular communication with the site, which was key to making us successful."
Marks was a site manager during the first PCAPP campaign, and he got to know and build trust with the crew over the years. "We had open communication with the crew," he said, "and they knew we could be contacted at any time, even during off hours."
RCMD remains nationally responsive by implementing sustainable readiness to meet operational demands. L&M is currently keeping a close watch on operations at Pine Bluff Arsenal (PBA), Arkansas, where RCMD has already completed the destruction of more than 1,200 RCWM items between 2006 and 2010.
The current mission will destroy 7,101 Chemical Agent Identification Set (CAIS) bottles, once used to train soldiers in the safe identification, handling and destruction of chemical agents. The bottles, which contain a small amount of undiluted mustard agent, were buried at PBA as a means of disposal and recovered during USACE environmental remediation efforts. The mission will also neutralize five mustard-filled German Traktor rockets, captured during World War II and sent to PBA for analysis, and a mustard-filled 4.2-inch mortar.
The number of EDS operations needed to neutralize this amount of RCWM will require a steady supply of trained crews, parts and explosive charges to meet the scheduled mission completion date of May 2019. RCMD stands ready.