By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
In the deadly contest last year between American experts trying to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and enemy technicians designing the lethal devices, Army scientist Scott E. Schoenfeld often pondered his adversary.
The enemy was fielding new so-called EFPs -- explosively formed penetrators -- that were so potent they were destroying even the most-heavily armored vehicles. As Schoenfeld and his colleagues at the Aberdeen Proving Ground studied captured explosives, the American, who has a PhD in applied mechanics, worried that his opponents might be much like himself.
Monday, in a sense, the latest round went to Schoenfeld. He and a team of Army experts were recognized for devising an "add on" lightweight armor kit that the Army said has proved resistant to the powerful EFPs.
Schoenfeld's work and the efforts of nine other programs deployed in the field last year were recognized as the Army's top inventions of 2008 by its Aberdeen-based Research, Development and Engineering Command. The 10 winners were selected by a panel of soldiers from 30 nominees, said spokesman Robert DiMichele.
"These are actually innovations that have been put into the field that soldiers are using right now," he said. "A lot of these are things that are really innovations that protect the soldier and save soldiers' lives."
One device was a special gauze bandage designed to stem arterial bleeding. Another was a steel roof to protect Humvee gunners from overhead fire. Another can detect sniper fire and allows a gunner in a vehicle to automatically aim at the source of the fire. Yet another can help detect radio emissions used to detonate makeshift bombs. And another was a kind of armored TV truck that can raise video and other sensing equipment mounted on a 30-foot mast to spot trouble nearby.
One of the most lifesaving programs was the add-on armor kit for the Army's mine and ambush resistant vehicles, which had become vulnerable to the penetrating roadside bombs. At Aberdeen, where thousands of captured roadside bombs have been studied, scientists were able to detonate powerful bombs and monitor how they worked.
Part of the solution was plastic armor made of high-density polyethylene fibers. "It's kind of an amazing process," Schoenfeld said Monday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City, where the recognition ceremony was held. "It's plastic, and the plastic is processed very heavily. It's drawn into fibers. The fibers are very high strength, and they're consolidated into composite panels. And they give very good ballistic performance."
Schoenfeld said the Army brought captured roadside bombs to Aberdeen and set them off to see how they worked.
"We tested . . . devices ourselves," he said. "We actually detonated many of them."
Experts measured the explosions with a host of sophisticated instruments, he said.
"We can do X-ray diagnostics, where we actually flash high-energy X-rays and make shadowgraphs of things that are coming off of the IEDs," he said, "so we understand the actual details of the penetrators that they form."
The scientists then study what they call "terminal effects," or what the explosive does to its target, and design armor to counter it.
Along the way, he said, the American experts think a lot about the designers of these bombs.
"We try and think, 'What would they do next?' " he said. "They have some expertise, and it's pretty obvious what it is. And you start understanding that. And you try and anticipate what else they might do."
"I'm worried that I might know" such an adversary, he said. "The scientific community is worldwide." He said such devices "very easily could have been" the work of someone like himself.
For now, though, the American scientists seem to have the upper hand.
"The rewarding part," Schoenfeld said, was getting back photographs of vehicles blasted by IEDs in which "people were not getting killed."