Replicas make bomb-disposal training more realistic
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has struggled to counter an ever-changing arsenal of homemade bombs, rigged to explode when encountered by soldiers or military vehicles.
By the time troops learn to deal with one type, another appears. One local company has grown its business around teaching soldiers and bomb disposal technicians how to deal with the constantly evolving threat, using replicas to make the training as convincing as possible.
Though past training relied on blocks of wood or cones to represent improvised explosives, A-T Solutions constructs copies of an improvised bomb, typically within 96 hours of receiving information on it. Officials from the Tysons Corner-based company, which runs an operations center in Fredericksburg, say the replicas help troops improve their knowledge and awareness.
Former Navy bomb disposal technician Ken Falke founded the company in 2002, and A-T Solutions soon won contracts instructing the military on how to counter improvised explosives. Seeing a clear need for replicas in this training, one of the original employees -- knowledgeable in engineering and previously part of a military unit tasked with explosive disposal -- began building them.
A major training contract win in 2007 increased A-T Solutions' course offerings, fueling demand for replicas, according to Chief Operating Officer Jeff Simons. The company institutionalized the replica building process, dedicating a team to not only making the copies but doing the necessary research to ensure they are accurate.
"You want that device to function exactly like a real device would function," except that a siren or smoke goes off rather than an explosion, said Dennis Kelly, chief executive and president at A-T Solutions. "Having that realism in the device is incredibly important."
The business surged, growing from $232,000 in revenue in 2002 to $17.5 million in 2006 and about $100 million last year. The company now has about 500 employees, including more than 150 former bomb disposal technicians.
A-T Solutions uses its own process to access all the available facts on improvised explosives, from classified information collected by the government to information that has been made public. The company, which has teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, works with the government, in some cases receiving instructions on specific devices to replicate.
The company builds the replicas soon after information on a new device is made available, so the models can be quickly incorporated into training. In a recent instance, A-T Solutions made copies of the printer bombs -- printer cartridges packed with an explosive compound and mailed from Yemen, but intercepted by authorities in the United Kingdom and Dubai -- within the company's four-day deadline.
The replica was then delivered for use in a federal law enforcement counterterrorism training program.
"In the last year, we've . . . hit our stride in terms of being able to do this 96-hour turnaround," said Kelly.