Weapons Disposal a Facet of Army Ammunition Activity's Job

Crane Army Ammunition Activity ordnance professionals prep Mark 80 bombs for renovation before hanging them from the conveyor-type monorail system, July 22, 2015. (U.S. Army photo/Thomas Peske)
Crane Army Ammunition Activity ordnance professionals prep Mark 80 bombs for renovation before hanging them from the conveyor-type monorail system, July 22, 2015. (U.S. Army photo/Thomas Peske)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Typically obscured by a veil of national security, officials shed light Wednesday on the Crane Army Ammunition Activity to showcase the work they envision fostering job growth on the base.

Established in 1977 and located on more than 51,000 acres near the junction of Interstate 69 and U.S. 231, the Army-run portion of the Crane military base far exceeds the space used by the Navy. The 80 percent of the base dedicated to the Ammunition Activity produces, stores and distributes approximately a quarter of the Department of Defense's conventional munitions. Valued at $9.8 billion, those munitions include pyrotechnic flares, illumination candles, components including bombs and other explosives and much more.

During the Crane Army Demilitarization media day, Col. James Hooper, commander of the activity, explained the need for transparency and how the base's enigmatic nature has been a help for security and a hindrance to the public's understanding of what the base's 740 civilian workers and three military officials are doing with everyone's tax dollars. Wednesday's tour highlighted the base's demilitarization of ammunition, which makes up a fourth of the Army's activities on base, along with distribution, storage and production efforts.

"We've decided to be a little more aggressive in educating the public," Hooper said.

Ammunition goes through life cycles just like anything else that's manufactured, he said. Some munitions have degraded to the point of failure; some are so old the weapons to fire them have gone out of production; and some are still operable but must be destroyed to satisfy international treaties dictating stockpile quantities.

The current systems in place to dispose of ordnance include an 80-acre demolition range, a 40-acre open burning ground and phosphorus processing facilities that can't be found anywhere else. In destroying the ammunition, the Ammunition Activity is able to sustain itself with revenue generated from the recycled materials. Recovered metals are inspected and sent to Bedford Recycling, while white phosphorus salvaged from countermeasure decoy flares is superheated and turned into phosphoric acid to be used for agricultural purposes, such as fertilizer. Metal components from 1970s grenades can be re-used to create new training munitions for a third of the price of a new round.

"We compete with commercial industry for workload," Hooper said. "It has made us extremely focused on bringing our costs down. There is competition — we call them commercial partners, but we compete with them, too."

According to Hooper, the Army Working Capital Fund business model pushes innovation and efficiency. In the 2015 fiscal year, the Crane Army Ammunition Activity generated $184 million in annual revenue, $174 million in annual expenses and was able to charge its customers $115 per hour per worker for their services. Once machines designed to recover red phosphorous from grenades are proved effective, Paul Allswede, commodity manager for demilitarization, said, reserves and the unique facilities will assure a workload — and therefore jobs — for years to come.

"Finally, an awakening has occurred that this is truly a business," Allswede said. "Everything we do here can be done elsewhere in industry."

Able to destroy munitions up to a 16-inch battleship round, the workers at the shot-loading facility can load a barrel with powder in seven to 10 minutes. It's then shipped to the 80-acre open demolition range, where it's not uncommon for anywhere from 30-50 shots to be buried under about 15 feet of dirt.

Detonations are staggered, and there's a 500-pound explosive weight limit, but there's still a 2,800-foot ground clearance and a 4,100-foot sky exclusion zone for safety. Using a remote detonator that can send a signal at 22,000 feet per second, officials can demilitarize 450-480 pounds of explosive in a day. Crane works with the Indiana State Police, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and other institutions when things such as repossessed illegal fireworks need to be rendered inert.

Another option for disposal is for pyrotechnics, flares, propellant and small explosives, which are burnt in six pans. Mickey Wager, the senior supervisor of the burn range, conducts four to five burns a day, destroying 700 pounds of materials across the six pans. Though each propellant is different, some can burn up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, though the burn only lasts for about five to 10 seconds.

Wager has been with Crane for 14 years, and though he served in the Army, he wound up overseeing 40 acres and handling dangerous materials because he couldn't stand working indoors in productions. Now, burning an average 1,500 pounds of propellant a day is normal, something he doesn't really talk about when he's home with his wife.

"I don't talk about it, to tell you the truth," Wager said, comparing it to the way he never talked much about his service. "The danger, it's there every day. That's why we preach safety all the time."

Of the two types of phosphorus discussed during the media tour, white is currently being turned into phosphoric acid and red is on its way to being utilized for the same purposes. Red phosphorus, the same chemical that's found in match heads, is machine-extracted from grenades in about two minutes. Then, it's packed into tubes that resemble the containers white phosphorus is stored in and sent to the white phosphorus salvaging facility. It's a process not unlike drilling into a box of match heads and trying to get it to not burn, Allswede said.

Robert Johnson, an operator of the machine that salvages the red phosphorus, has been working on this new project for three weeks. He's been with the Army Ammunition Activity for 18 years and is used to change, saying operators are flexible. He may also be the most relaxed person to handle live grenades with an unproven machine ever.

"In 18 years, I believe — with the amount of ammunition and the amount of people — there are enough safety measures that everyone goes home at night," Johnson said.

White phosphorus can be found in countermeasure decoy flares used by planes to throw off enemy tracking systems. When a canister is set for demilitarization, it is sent to the white phosphorus plant, one of the only facilities mentioned Wednesday that can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The recipe for how many minutes one of these canisters spends being superheated and pushed down a long cooling pipe differs between munition types, but the end product is a two-part moneymaker.

The phosphorus inside is turned into phosphoric acid, which is sold to private companies to use as fertilizer. The remaining, scorched steel is taken to a recycling center and could wind up as a fork. To fill a roughly 4,000-gallon tank with phosphoric acid, it takes 48 hours and 1,050 155mm-type rounds.

For each of these systems, the Crane operation looks for closed-system alternatives to increase operating capabilities and to reduce hazardous emissions, despite being far below the rates allowed. According to Allswede, if the open systems could ignore limiting factors such as the weather, changing seasons, daylight hours and neighbor concerns and operate 365 days a year, they still wouldn't hit their emissions limits.

"We have generations of families that live here; we live here," Allswede said. "It's going to be environmentally safe. We're always pushing the envelope (on environmental conservation) because this is our neighborhood."

Environmental considerations and worker safety supersede any such revenue goals, though, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management regularly and unexpectedly inspect soil composition, wastewater, air contaminate levels and more. Deer, frog and bird specimen have been collected and autopsied, showing no signs of irregularities.

All of the processes are headed toward more efficient closed systems that mitigate emissions, clear storage, increase capability and create workload. In addition to a promise of future work, Allswede said he believes there's a workforce to match.

"There are people that are qualified, and there's an availability of labor in the region," Allswede said. "And not just on the labor side; we have to ramp up the technician side of the house, too."

About 50 percent of workers have a military background, Allswede said, with Hooper acknowledging the familial relations between workers by referring to the Army Activity as "government owned, family operated." It's a mature workforce with experience that allows for most anybody to pause production in the interest of safety. Standards are re-evaluated as workers denote everything — including near-miss accidents — and influence operations.

"Good ideas can come from anywhere," Allswede said.

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