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Bullets in Baghdad: Ammunition Safety in a Combat Environment

Large ammunition stocks are vital to sustaining combat operations, but they also create the potential for disastrous accidents. Ammunition specialists in theater thus become enforcers of safety as well as combat multipliers.

More powerful than a locomotive and faster than a speeding bullet! No, it’s not Superman, it’s the Army’s ammunition specialist, military occupational specialty (MOS) 89B, as he protects lives—not to mention valuable Army materiel and property—by enforcing ammunition safety in the Multi-National Division-Baghdad (MND–B) area of responsibility (AOR). As the mission in Iraq continues, leaders and Soldiers have combined their efforts to identify and develop plans to mitigate ammunition accidents. After 4 years of combat operations, ammunition continues to accumulate, and ammunition safety has become an area of major importance.

Reducing Net Explosive Weights

In Iraq, ammunition managers have emphasized the reduction of net explosive weights by getting rid of unserviceable ammunition or dunnage that add to the potential for explosions. Leaders have striven to maintain levels of ammunition based on operational needs rather than basic load authorizations. Although troops have made tremendous progress in reducing net explosive weights, Soldiers understand that additional work is required.

Soldiers contribute greatly to the safe use of munitions when they reduce the net explosive weight of the ammunition stocks in ammunition transfer holding points (ATHPs). They accomplish this reduction by identifying and retrograding excess ammunition from ATHPs. During their deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom 06–08, ammunition specialists of the 15th Sustainment Brigade spent countless hours accepting turn-ins, taking inventories, reconfiguring loads, finalizing inspections, and coordinating the shipment for over 8 million rounds of ammunition to supply points. In reducing net explosive weights, these 89B Soldiers returned many infrequently used, high-explosive rounds that were no longer required for mission accomplishment.

Improving Ammunition Sites

Another initiative undertaken by 15th Sustainment Brigade ammunition specialists was making site improvements to ATHPs. In the wake of an explosion, senior leaders performed site visits to all munitions storage sites throughout the MND–B AOR. A common point of emphasis during the visits was the need to emplace HESCO (Hercules Engineering Solutions Consortium) barriers, which are constructed to provide blast protection. These fence-and-barricade systems, wrapped with a nonwoven polypropylene fabric, generally burn slowly if ignited. These barriers (which extend at least 1 foot above the tops of storage containers) are positioned around the perimeters and between the storage cells of all ammunition storage facilities.

Brigade ammunition specialists also focused on storage procedures. In addition to ensuring that appropriate fire and chemical warnings were posted, the 89B specialists made certain that all storage sites were free of flammable items, such as solvents and petroleum products. The specialists then reevaluated the inner and outer packaging of all ammunition, discarded any unserviceable cases, and updated magazine data cards to maintain accountability. After this process was completed, ammunition managers certified that they had marked all packages with the proper national stock numbers, identification codes, and lot numbers of the materiel they contained. In completing site improvements, Army engineers extended boundaries and outer perimeter walls, which reinforced the safety and protection of the storage areas.

Receiving Outside Assistance

The quality assurance specialist-ammunition surveillance (QASAS) is an Army civilian who acts as a combat multiplier with relation to ammunition safety. During the past year, a QASAS completed routine site assistance visits in the MND–B area. In doing so, he worked side by side with the brigade’s ammunition specialists, providing technical and policy advice on ammunition management. He also verified the storage configurations and compatibilities of all shipping containers. If ammunition malfunctions occurred during use or setup, the QASAS provided feedback to the Joint Munitions Command for immediate dissemination to major subordinate commands.

Also during assistance visits, the QASAS monitored cell explosive limits, ensuring that units maintained the authorized net explosive weight of 8,800 pounds per cell. Other areas of emphasis during visits included verifying the unit’s on-hand balances of authorized basic loads and validating their requisitions against the theater’s controlled supply rate. The QASAS ensured that site managers were conducting risk assessments, that Soldiers had personal protective equipment, and that an effective system for fire-fighting practices was in place. The QASAS proved to be a reliable asset.

To wrap all initiatives together, and at the request of theater leaders, the Army’s Defense Ammunition Center at McAlester, Oklahoma, sent its explosive safety team into the theater of operations. The team assisted ammunition managers in calculating net explosive weights, reviewed public traffic routes and distances to inhabited buildings, and provided advice to MND–B leaders about which ammunition sites should be awarded licenses or waivers for operations. As the team progressed from site to site, the ammunition specialists listened to and recorded recommendations provided by the ammunition experts.

On-site assistance was incorporated into an ATHP expansion plan that was under construction. The team also discussed the proper standoff distances from storage containers to HESCO barricade systems and the different mechanisms used to increase security. One security method, the two-lock system, recommends that the unit owning the ammunition individu-ally secure its containers and then allow the site managers to apply a different locking system. After 2 weeks of walkthroughs by the explosive safety team, all units in the MND–B area had received both standard and relative guidance needed to maintain or achieve ammunition compliance.

As units continue to operate in the MND–B area, ammunition safety remains a top priority, and the ammunition specialist has the lead in this enormous task. The retrograde of excess ammunition, the implementation of site improvements, the incorporation of the QASAS into safety plans, and the use of Department of the Army experts will all facilitate ammunition safety in a combat environment.

Major Levorn S. Collins is the ammunition officer of the 15th Sustainment Brigade. He is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, and Combined Arms and Services Staff School. He holds a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Prairie View A&M University.