Clearing the field
Heavy construction equipment rumbles up and down the mock runway on Andersen Air Force Base’s Northwest Field, vibrating the ground as many tons of steel and hydraulics forces the world into a new shape.
A group of NCOs stand in a loose circle, discussing the challenge ahead of them, while their Airmen practice with the equipment in the background.
“I think at its core the problem is that this is something totally different from what we’ve been doing for the past decade,” said Master Sergeant Harold Horton, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Flight Chief. “We’ve been focused so much on the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat that this kind of operation has been pushed to the back burner. But if you think about it, if you’re great at diffusing an IED you might save what, twelve, fifteen people? If you’re great at clearing a runway like we’re trying to practice here? You just might be winning a war.”
The exercise starts quietly in the subtle manner of most serious military maneuvers. A simple announcement over a hand held radio sends hundreds of people into action.
The scenario is a missile strike on a U.S. Air Force base. A runway is left in tatters, thousands of pockmarks cover the ground, craters that could comfortably fit several large men scar the pavement, and thousands of simulated unexploded ordinance devices (UXOs) are left laying upon the tarmac, waiting to maim any engineer who sets out to repair the damage.
The first step taken is cultivating information. Small drones take flight, mapping out areas of damage, as armored vehicles carefully drive the length of the runway, documenting UXOs. There are many questions that need to be answered before the runway can be repaired. What damage has been sustained? What needs to be focused on? What is the immediate threat?
As more information begins to flow through, the EOD teams are already in motion.
In a departure from the stereotypical image of an EOD tech walking towards a bomb in a bulky suit covered in Kevlar, the first movement on the damaged runway comes from massive construction equipment.
Front-end loaders, buckets filled with concrete, form a line and begin to slowly push forward.
Carefully skirting craters, like a farmer’s plow avoiding a boulder, they push as many UXOs as they can off the runway.
Taking it a section at a time they are soon far enough down the runway that the next stage of recovery can begin.
“The solution really came from a couple of staff sergeants who had experience on aircraft training ranges,” said Capt. Mark Elliot, 36th CES EOD flight commander. “They looked at what we were trying to do with a runway full of UXOs and said, ‘hey, I think we have something that might work here.’”
What they proposed was a ‘blow-and-go’ line. A team of EOD techs places neutralizing charges of C4 on a remaining UXO and walks forward to the next threat, relying on the timed fuse and their skill to make sure they are far enough away to ensure safety.
When the EOD team first stepped onto the runway, the only disturbance was the faint rumbling of the reinforced front-end loaders half a kilometer up the runway.
That peace was short lived.
While the loaders had done a lot, there were spots they simply couldn’t reach and UXOs had managed to escape their plows.
The line of EOD techs quickly get to work. Stabbing fuses into small blocks of explosives, setting them against the offending munition and then igniting the powder inside the fuse, leaving it to smoke behind them as they moved on to the next problem.
For a few minutes the only sound on the swath of asphalt is that of NCOs yelling to keep moving, stay in a line, and move faster.
But as the adrenaline and focus began to settle in, the first concussive bang slapped against the chests of the men on the line.
With only a brief respite after the first explosion the second reminded the men of the timeline they were on.
The shouts to keep moving, keep pace, and keep together redoubled as every few seconds another blast sent a shockwave though their chests, and tossed clouds of fire and concrete dust into the air.
This line of Airmen is the key to making this new technique work.
“It’s something that will be difficult to replace,” said Horton. “Technology can fail. Equipment can break. So if all else fails, this is what we can rely on, smart, competent, people walking down the runway and making it safe.”
As the last of the explosions rumbles into the distance, and a final team of EOD techs double checks that the area is safe, the final part of the recovery effort begins to stage.
It’s time to repair the runway.
“For so long we’ve been on our back foot so to speak,” said Elliot. “People were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan due to IEDs, so that’s what we focused on. But the civil engineers focusing on repairing a runway have been doing this for years now. They’re comfortable and confident. Now we can finally say that we’re alongside them.”
As the EOD teams take their leave to discuss the success of their new technique, the engineers swoop in.
Asphalt cutters neatly section off craters, while bobcats push rubble to the side.
Excavators clean the leftover holes and quick-setting concrete is poured and mixed into the holes left behind.
Hours after the explosions and danger, an Airman smooths the last bit of concrete filling a hole and the runway is whole once again.
“It’s about filling a need.” said Elliot. “We can take what we did here and push it to every unit in the Air Force. This proved that we’re ready if the fight comes to us tonight.”