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?
In August 2001, I was working with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency on a weapon to defeat tunnels. Then 9/11 happened. I was told to take my "best guess" in thermobaric explosive technology and weaponize it immediately to support Operation Enduring Freedom. My team -- nearly 100 scientists, engineers and technicians -- went from concept to manufacture of 11 new thermobaric bombs in only 67 days.
How did you motivate your team to make such a deadline?
What could motivate you more than 9/11, the pictures of the Pentagon and the twin towers, the innocent people killed?
Was it risky?
If you make a mistake, somebody dies. People have to be well-trained and always work in pairs. Making explosives is like making a cake: You first pour the liquid ingredients into a big mixer, then add the solids . . . three huge blades go around as you keep adding ingredients. Mixing is the most dangerous part; it's done from a remote control room. Then you pour the dough into the warhead, and stick it in a gigantic oven to bake.
What exactly did you do as a formulator?
I came up with the recipe. I was in the room when you test the formulation [starting with smaller quantities] to gauge the sensitivity of the material to see if it's going to blow up in your face. Then the process engineers refine the process. Sometimes when we scaled up to hundreds or thousands of pounds, we'd have to change the formulation.
There have been discussions about arming bunker busters with nuclear weapons. What do you think of this strategy?
I can't comment on that.
What do you do now?
In 2006 I became a science advisor, honchoing technology issues for the deputy chief of naval operations (plans and strategies) and for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates crimes on bases and ships and works on counterintelligence. . . . We catch spies. The TV show "NCIS" is based on it.
How accurate is the show?
With four kids, between cooking and helping with homework, I haven't had time to watch it.
How do you respond to critics?
People will ask why I'd utilize my intelligence and training to make explosives . . . but [rather than destruction], foremost in my mind is coming up with ways to protect our troops.
What do you talk about on the Discovery Channel's "Future Weapons" series?
The BLU-118/B thermobaric bomb that my team developed to penetrate tunnels in Afghanistan. The crew spent a whole day filming my work in a lab and in a manufacturing plant where we made the explosives.