How Military Members are Saving More Lives in Miraculous Ways

Panama City military engineers and defense contractors prove to be the best at counter-IED measures.

When the stakes are life and death for American service members, military inventors have to think on the fly to come up with equipment that will keep the blood off the ground. And the counter-IED engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Panama City Division are as good as anyone at doing just that by developing surprisingly simple, but effective solutions. With the help of private military contractors, they have been saving the lives of U.S. Marines and sailors in Afghanistan with one of their latest pieces of equipment, the Panama City Mine Roller System.

The mine roller is a device that attaches to the front of any Marine vehicle and sets off IEDs before the vehicle itself rolls over them, protecting the Marines inside from the blast. The idea was conceived, tested and implemented in Bay County, using military engineers and local defense contractors such as L-3 Communications. So far, more than 600 have been produced for use in Afghanistan, many of them coming from facilities in Panama City Beach.

“Every aspect of what our program requires (is) located at Panama City. They have an intelligence section that tracks emerging IED trends, a solid team of engineers and scientists who really understand the physics of mines and … skilled craftsmen who can fabricate the rollers and test facilities to quickly test the new designs,” U. S. Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Reilly said in a military statement.


Fighting an Explosive War 

The Taliban fighters simply are not equipped to go toe-to-toe with American forces. They don’t have the soldiers, heavy weapons and technology to withstand the kind of brutal power — from smart artillery to air support — that an Army division or Marine Expeditionary Force could bring to bear in a straightforward, conventional battle.

So, the insurgents are doing what smaller, less-advanced forces have done for centuries when facing overwhelming firepower — they’re waging asymmetrical warfare.

The idea behind a guerilla war is not to take and hold ground or to reduce the enemy’s numbers by sheer force. It is to weaken the will of the other side, to drag the conflict out and make the enemy question whether it is worth the cost. Insurgents do this by interrupting supply lines, carrying out hit-and-run attacks that slow the enemy’s advance and by inflicting casualties in particularly gruesome and frightening ways.

The easiest way for the Taliban and foreign fighters to do this in Afghanistan is through the use of IEDs. Insurgents can plant bombs along routes used for logistics and patrols and detonate them remotely, destroying both equipment and wounding or killing Americans without exposing their own small force to direct contact. The result is that resupply is temporarily disrupted and troop movement slows as soldiers and Marines move more cautiously to avoid additional bombs.

The Washington Post recently reported that the use of bombs has increased significantly from the beginning of the war, with American military records reflecting nearly 15,000 “IED incidents” between 2007 and 2009. They have become a leading cause of casualties in Afghanistan, accounting for at least 275 deaths last year alone, according to the website, which tracks military deaths.

And the bombs are becoming more effective. 

Insurgents in Iraq often were operating in developed areas with paved roads, so they had to place their bombs beside roads, disguised as anything from trash to dead animals. There are few paved roads in Afghanistan, though, meaning Taliban fighters can bury their bombs underground in “natural chokepoints where movement is expected,” said Alan Canfield, manager of the counter-IED program at the Navy base in Panama City Beach.

No remote detonator is needed because the device is triggered when a vehicle rolls over it — or a Marine steps on one — and the weight pushes two small pieces of metal together, closing a circuit. They’re also made largely from fertilizer, with only minimal metal components, so they are extremely difficult to detect.

Because the bombs are buried, instead of sitting out in the open, insurgents can make them much larger. And while the military is using more Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in Afghanistan, even an armored vehicle body is not much protection from the overpressure and shrapnel generated by several pounds of high-order explosive detonating directly underneath.

The result: IEDs in Afghanistan are as much as 50 percent more lethal now than just three years ago, according to Congressional testimony by Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

And so, the military has been getting inventive.


How to Shield the Marines?

The call came from the Marine Corps in 2006.

Could the mine experts from the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Panama City Division take a look at the IED threat and try to devise a solution?

Countering mine warfare is an integral part of Navy operations, and is a frequent subject of research and development at the Navy base. Of course, coming up with a way to defeat mines manufactured uniformly by a foreign government is a different animal from homemade bombs, which can change from device to device.

“We have to war-game, troubleshoot and think ahead,” Canfield said.

The idea they landed on was a simple one.

“Our proposal was for a wheel-based system for the tactical vehicles to provide pre-detonation of the mines,” he said.

A team of six Navy engineers and techs started working on the design. What they created was a flatbed trailer, of sorts, with headlights that could be attached to any of the vehicles commonly used by Marine units. Rows of wheels stretch across the front to roll over and compress the ground before the vehicle follows.

While Canfield said he can’t go into details about how it works, the basic concept is that the roller triggers the mine, then “takes the hit.” The roller, although designed to be durable and repairable, usually is destroyed in the explosion, leaving the vehicle behind it and the Marines inside untouched.

In addition to lives, the device also saves money, since the cost of a mine roller is only about 10 percent that of a tactical vehicle, Canfield said.

Less than 90 days after the original request for help, the counter-IED engineers had a prototype being field-tested in Iraq.

That was just the beginning. After an early success in Iraq — Canfield can’t say what — the Marines ordered more of the mine rollers than the Navy base could actually provide. L-3 Communications was chosen to help manufacture the mine rollers and turned out at least 42 in the initial stages.

Meanwhile, the counter-IED representatives began traveling to the war zones to see how the mine roller was performing and what improvements could be made. Canfield said the civilians on his team have made nearly a dozen trips in three-and-a-half years to both theaters, so many that several have received awards for time spent in combat zones.

“That’s one of the ways we’ve been able to get to a third generation,” of the mine roller, Canfield said.

Initially, the Marine Corps was testing five counter-IED systems, designed by both government agencies and private contractors, but settled on the Panama City Mine Roller System as the best solution.

(Canfield said the U.S. Army has its own version of a mine roller manufactured by a company in the United Kingdom.)

Now, the program is running full blast.

About 200 people, both government employees and contractors, work on the project, along with other regional manufacturers. L-3’s Panama City Beach facility has a $44.6 million contract to support the mine roller through 2012, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. And the counter-IED engineers also oversee production by other military facilities.

Last month, Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan told Congress: “We currently have approximately 200 rollers on order at the Marine Corps Maintenance Center, Albany, Ga., and 90 on order with L-3 through the Naval Surface Warfare Center (in) Panama City.”


Bomb Goes Off, Marines Survive

Of course, the question is, how well does it work?

There have been more than 100 reports since 2006 of successful uses of the mine roller. The Navy provided information on one such incident from December 2008.

A Marine unit from Hawaii that Canfield had helped train in the use of the system was on a supply run to a forward operating base. The unit, commanded by 1st. Lt. Rebecca Turpin, was using a mine roller.

“The mine roller has to go over some very rocky terrain in Afghanistan and I’m not talking about little rocks either — I mean huge boulders, but it holds up,” she said in a Navy statement. 

The lead vehicles, with a roller attached, crested a wadi — sort of a gully — and was starting down into it.

“The mine roller came over the top of the bank and dropped down into a wadi and the IED blew up,” said Marine Sgt. Benjamin Chesterbristow, as reported by Dan Broadstreet, a spokesman at the Navy base. “We actually laughed out of relief. I can definitely say that (the mine roller) prevented a mobility kill and saved the lives of everyone in our vehicle … You don’t necessarily have to worry about things going terribly wrong if the mine roller does catch an IED.”

For Canfield, the incident illustrates how critical it is for programs like the one in Panama City Beach to provide fast, workable solutions to those who are in the line of fire.

“In this business, when you have an adaptive and responsive enemy who doesn’t have a chain of command, a supply system or acquisition process — they just come up with an idea and execute it — that’s an enemy we have to respond to quickly,” he said.

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