The latest thing to come out of the motor pool here at Qalat Forward Operating Base isn't pretty, and it isn't all that easy to steer. But it might just save some lives.
It's a minesweeper that rides out front of a Humvee, designed to detect land mines or roadside bombs by setting them off.
"Hopefully, it will blow up the mines and save the lives of the men inside the Humvee," says Sgt. Byron Begay, a motor pool mechanic from Superior, Ariz.
The minesweeper, due to make its battlefield debut this month, has a distinctly Frankensteinish look to it - iron welded to iron, a steering column, and a Humvee-length space of nothingness, where an exploding roadside bomb will be unable to do harm. It's the type of battlefield ingenuity that the Pentagon could draw upon as it tasks a high-level general to develop countermeasures to roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The Qalat minesweeper was cobbled together from parts scavenged from broken-down Humvees. And that, unfortunately, is something the Army has a lot of these days.
IEDs have become the weapon of choice for Taliban and other insurgents. In Zabul Province alone, the area of operation for the 2nd battalion of the 503rd infantry regiment - part of the 173rd Airborne brigade - some 41 IEDs have been used against US or Afghan troops in the past six months. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the unit that developed the minesweeper.]
Half of these IEDs were discovered before they detonated. The rest exploded near coalition vehicles, killing five servicemen, injuring dozens of others, and rendering dozens of vehicles inoperable.
The deadliest attack came Aug. 21, when four US Army servicemen from Battle Company of the 2/503rd hit a pressure plate mine - the most common type of mine here, which is triggered by a vehicle's weight - while riding in an "up-armored" Humvee.
It was then that motor pool Chief Thomas Waltman, of Hot Springs, Colo., came up with the idea of creating a minesweeper that could ride out front of the lead Humvee in a convoy.
"Once we get the materials, we can make as many as we want," says Staff Sgt. Ilon Crittenden, of Buffalo, N.Y. Parts are generally hard to come by, so the motor pool makes do by stripping damaged Humvees.
The hardest nut to crack was how to steer the minesweeper. Pushing a trailer out front of a car requires a separate, passenger-side steering system.
On their first test drives, motor pool mechanics found that when the driver of the Humvee and the driver of the minesweeper both steered at the same time, the two vehicles began to move sideways, like a crab. Now, they have learned to steer the trailer first, and the Humvee second. Once the Humvee has moved onto blacktop road, where land mines cannot be placed, the trailer can be disconnected and put behind the Humvee.
The minesweeper may help slow a trend in adding heavy armor to Humvees. In recent years, Army motor pools have been customizing lightly-armored Humvees, adding inch-thick panels of fiberglass to door panels and fenders to protect against shrapnel and small arms fire. On paper, this makes sense, but on the battlefield, this added weight can be dangerous.
"We want to be careful here; the Humvee was not designed to be a tank," says Capt. Thomas Anderson, a military spokesman in Qalat. "They were designed to be maneuverable. You can't sacrifice that in this terrain. On long-range missions, you cross a lot of rivers, and the last thing you want is to get stuck in a riverbed or a snowbank."