HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (April 25, 2019) – The Ordnance and Explosives Directorate’s Global Operations Division at Huntsville Center has wrapped up work on a five-year, $310 million multi-range cleanup project in Afghanistan.
The division managed the mission of clearing ordnance from 62 now-closed U.S.-operated ranges, most of which were part of forward operating bases that shut down in 2014 and 2015 as coalition troops consolidated into larger, more concentrated areas like Bagram and Kandahar.
As is typical with used ranges, a variety of unexploded ordnance and ammunition was still embedded both on the surface and in the subsurface of the ranges when U.S. forces shut down operations at these locations, according to Eduardo Granados, Global Operations Division chief.
The situation posed a distinct danger that the project was designed to remedy:
The unexploded ordnance that remained on the ranges gave insurgents an opportunity to gather explosive content and use it in improvised explosive devices targeting U.S. service members.
Another danger was to the Afghan civilian population, both to those trying to harvest scrap metal for its value and to those who might happen upon the ordnance unintentionally while shepherding their animals or search for firewood. This included herders and children, Granados said.
The material included anything from small-arms ammunition all the way up to aerial munitions, but not all of it was from U.S. forces. Adding a layer of complexity to the situation was the fact that many of these areas were tactically important and had been used as Soviet ranges before the U.S. first arrived in the early 2000s.
It was not uncommon that during a cleanup of these areas, the field crews would uncover items from conflicts as far back as 1979 during the Soviet occupation, including landmines and other non-U.S. munitions.
“In the end, it was the right thing to do and it was a good thing to do because it protected U.S. forces and it protected the civilian population,” Granados said.
The project started in early 2014 when Huntsville Center partnered with Sterling Global Operations – now called Janus Global Operations – and together built a workforce of Afghan local nationals to carry out the onsite ordnance surveying and cleanup.
“We ensured they were trained appropriately, and the contractor was continuously doing quality control,” said Robert Selfridge, chief geophysicist with Huntsville Center’s Engineering Directorate who served as one of the project managers. “The Afghan government was actually performing the field verification portion of the quality assurance that we would typically do here in the states.”
Selfridge said the onsite teams used time-domain metal detectors and flux gate magnetometers approved by the Afghanistan Mine Action Standards Committee.
While a portion of the personnel had no experience before the training, Selfridge said many actually had decades of demining experience.
“We took experienced deminers and trained them using our detectors, which a lot of them had used previously,” said Selfridge. “We trained them using our approved procedures – approved not just through us but through Afghanistan’s Directorate of Mine Action Coordination. The detectors had to be approved, personnel had to be trained, and they had to be tested.”
DEFINING THE RANGES
One of the biggest challenges was locating the range boundaries, Selfridge said. Many of the closed ranges were only identified by a single latitude-longitude point, and no information could be found that defined the outer boundaries. Selfridge said the field teams had to collect a “vast amount” of data to identify the range boundaries.
Other sites presented the exact opposite problem. The information they were supplied with stated that the range was extremely large. After completing their characterization, it was determined that the range used was actually quite small, he said.
At one site, crews had to search more than 41 million square meters for one range that turned out to be only 2 million square meters in size, said Selfridge. That alone took months of work.
“We sent our field teams to talk to local tribesmen, did a surface visual reconnaissance of the area, completed a surface clearance of the area, then performed our digital geophysical transects to identify where the actual target areas existed that contained subsurface ordnance that we needed to remove,” Selfridge said.
The initial estimate was 533 square kilometers on 84 ranges, a figure that grew over the course of the five years to more than 1,000 square kilometers.
Only taking into account that initial estimate of 533 square kilometers, Selfridge said using a traditional 100 percent subsurface clearance method – called mag and dig – would have resulted in a cost of more than $1 billion. As the area increased, so did the projected cost.
To stay within the bounds of the original $310 million contract, Selfridge initiated an ad hoc technical project delivery team that combined subject-matter experts from Huntsville Center and Janus to evaluate all existing data to make determinations on the actual boundaries of the target ranges.
By completing Digital Geophysical Transects utilizing Visual Sampling Planning Software (a Department of Energy-developed statistical software program with an unexploded ordnance module) and overlaying that data with the results of the surface clearances, the technical PDT was able to eliminate all unnecessary subsurface work which resulted in a 90 percent reduction of the original area, Selfridge said.
“With this method, we were able to locate and concentrate on clearing the existing subsurface ordnance within the target areas that resulted in mission success,” Selfridge said.
Separate from this project, Granados said there are approximately 20 still-active U.S.-operated ranges, and funding has just been approved for a project to ensure these areas are properly identified and prepared for clearance before they are closed.
Because Afghanistan is so culturally segmented, Granados said, it was important to hire and train workers from the local communities of each worksite.
“Otherwise, they would stand out and be harassed, or worse,” Granados said.
Nevertheless, Granados said, violence and kidnappings were still an unfortunately reality of the mission.
In an effort to combat these problems, and to help educate Afghans about why the crews were there and how they were helping their fellow citizens, Selfridge said he credits Janus with the idea for a program called Mine and Range Risk Education.
Selfridge said Janus enlisted locals who were friendly to the U.S. to lead these classes in which the instructors would go out to communities and talk about the dangers of unexploded ordnance and mines. This was a train-the-trainer strategy where the initial trainers handpicked additional trainers, and so on. As the pool of trainers expanded, so did the number of people Global Operations and Janus were confident they could trust.
From there, he said, they were able to develop stronger relationships and knew whom they could trust. Many of these became liaisons who would work with village elders and other key decision-makers in their respective regions so the residents would more readily accept these crews into their communities to get their work done.
The process took months in most cases, Selfridge said, and in a few cases it took several years.
Utilizing these existing relationships, Janus hired “watchers” to surround the work sites to protect the crews and warn them of thieves or potential kidnappers.
Nevertheless, though the original plan was to clean up 84 ranges, Granados and Selfridge said the mission stopped at 62 because it was simply too dangerous for the crews to finish work on all of them.
“We didn’t get to the remaining ranges because it was not a permissive environment and it was still too kinetic,” Granados said. “We did as much as we could.”
“If you get chased out of a site three or four times, and they’re shooting at you, I’m not going to put my contractors’ personnel at any further risk,” Selfridge said.
In the end, the team received closure certificates for 62 out of the 84 ranges, and they were able to do surface clearance on an additional eight ranges. Selfridge said he estimates that doing a surface clearance alone removes more than 98 percent of the danger to civilians.
“Then the only way they’re going to interact with the ordnance is if they’re actively digging in the area,” he said. “So, if we can complete the surface clearance, which we did on 70 of the sites, we tremendously reduce the potential of civilians coming into contact with live ordnance.”
Selfridge said it’s not easy to get definitive or consistent figures, but the estimated annual number of Afghan civilians killed by ordnance on ranges throughout the country went from more than 130 annually before this mission started to zero casualties on the 62 U.S. ranges that have had clearance completed from this project.
“We had a major impact,” Selfridge said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We left those ranges far safer than we found them.”