The Insider

Explosives Expert

By Robin Tierney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Explosives expert Anh Duong led the team that, in just 67 days, developed the first U.S. thermobaric bomb -- a device that detonates a cloud of chemicals and creates shock waves that destroy everything in its range. Called the "bunker buster," the weapon was designed to destroy enemy cave and tunnel command posts in the post-Sept. 11 Afghanistan war. Now, as a science advisor at the Pentagon, she devises anti-terrorism technologies.

Duong, who at age 15 fled Vietnam with her family, has had a busy year. She's featured in the new book, "Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers" (American Society of Civil Engineers, 2006), as well as in "Why We Fight," the award-winning 2005 film about foreign policy and the U.S. military, in which she discusses bombmaking and her perspectives on war. And on Wednesday at 10 p.m., the Discovery Channel documentary series "Future Weapons" probes the secretive world of high-tech weapons and their masterminds -- including Duong.

What motivated you to go into chemical engineering and weapons development?

I hardly knew any English when I first came to the U.S., so I thought I would fare better in school if I concentrated on math, physics and chemistry. Why weapons development? Because I wanted to work for U.S. defense. As a war refugee, I never forget the American and Vietnamese soldiers who kept me safe.

Your family fled Vietnam, rushing from helicopter to boat to naval ship -- that must have been terrifying.

You didn't have time to think; the pilot shouted "Keep moving, keep moving!" You had to wait for the right moment to jump from the boat to the ship or you wouldn't make it. My cousin panicked . . . when I opened my eyes, he was hanging from the side of the ship; his legs almost got smashed.

Then it was your turn to jump?

I was numb. I remember calmly calculating the distance and the right moment to jump. . . . Everyone reached out to grab me. After I saw my family and knew we made it, I broke out in sweat, paralyzed with fear. If that had happened when I jumped, I would not have made it.

You studied chemical engineering at University of Maryland and later earned a masters in public administration at American University. How did you become a weapons expert?

My first job out of college, in 1983, was a gun propellant formulator at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head. I formulated the stuff that launches the projectile out of the gun barrel and propels it to the target. These are not handguns, but big naval guns on ships. In 1986 I became a rocket propellant formulator; I formulated propellant that launched missiles from the launchers on ships and airplanes -- air-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles. My husband teases that I really am a rocket scientist.

In 1991, I became an explosives developer. Two years later I was managing the entire Navy explosives effort.

You led the "bunker buster" project. What did that involve?


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