Saturday, February 13, 2010

Defeating IEDs in Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Afghanistan


Afghanistan - In comes "The Joker."

That's the nickname given by the crew to one of the 72-ton, 40-foot-long Assault Breacher Vehicles. Fitted with a plow and nearly 7,000 pounds of explosives, the Breachers, as they are commonly known, are the Marine Corps' answer to the deadliest threat facing NATO troops in Afghanistan: thousands of land mines and roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, that litter the Afghan landscape.

The Breachers, metal monsters that look like a tank with a cannon, carry a 15-foot-wide plow supported by metallic skis that glide on the dirt, digging a safety lane through the numerous minefields laid by the Taliban.

If there are too many mines, the Breachers can fire rockets carrying high-grade C-4 explosive up to 150 yards forward, detonating the hidden bombs at a safe distance so that troops and vehicles can pass through safely.

The detonations - over 1,700 pounds of Mine Clearing Line Charges - send a sheet fire into the air and shock waves rippling through the desert in all directions.


Several Breachers - including "The Joker" and its twin "Iceman" - will be used in the Marjah assault. Commanders hope they will make a huge difference as troops pierce through layer after layer of minefields circling the town.

"I consider it to be a truly lifesaving weapon," said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Sanchez, 38, leader of a platoon from the 2nd Marines Combat Engineers Battalion.

A cross between a bulldozer and Abrams tank with a 1,500-horsepower turbine engine, Breachers are so valuable that they only travel outside bases along with a tank retrieval vehicle to drag them to safety if they are damaged.

Sanchez's platoon drove Breachers in their first combat operation in December, when Marines reclaimed a section of the heavily mined Now Zad valley farther north in Helmand province. "We made history, and the Breacher did well," says Sanchez, of Palm Desert, Calif.


Bulldozer-tank hybrid takes out minefields

. . . the U.S. Marines – as they move on the Taliban in the Marjah district of Helmand province – are giving thanks for "the Breacher," the latest generation of mine clearance vehicles. Its full name is the Assault Breacher Vehicle and it looks like a cross between a bulldozer and a tank with a set of deadly steel teeth. Which it is: its frame is based on the A1M1 Abrams battle tank, while its plow was developed by a British company and can tear up the dirt to a depth of 14 inches.

The Breacher weighs some 70 tons and yet can travel at speeds of up to 45 mph. In development since the 1990s, it has arrived just in time for a stiff test of its capabilities.
The Taliban have had weeks to place hundreds of IEDs around Marjah, and the early going in the offensive suggests they have certainly slowed down the movement of some allied units. The Taliban are also planting much more powerful and sophisticated devices than they were a year ago. A recent NATO briefing showed that whereas 18 months ago the charge in most IEDs weighed less than 25 pounds, now about three-quarters weigh more than that.
When it hits and detonates a mine or IED, the Breacher hardly shudders. (Watch Marine Corps video of the Breacher in action)

But its greatest asset is the ability to fire rockets with high explosives into a minefield from a distance of some 150 yards. The rockets carry 1,700 pounds of C4 on a line charge – almost like a lasso. When the line lands, it's detonated from within the Breacher and shock waves set off many of the mines. The line can also be used to breach fortifications.

The Marines are probably pretty happy that they persevered with the Breacher after the U.S. Army cancelled a similar program back in 2001 to build a breed of mine clearance vehicles called the Grizzly. There are only a handful of Breachers in service in Afghanistan now, but the Marines hope to have about 50 operational by 2012. And the U.S. Army is now also ordering them. Perhaps that's why one Breacher crew calls their vehicle "the Joker."


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