There was an interesting story in the news recently that described a startling fact.
Eighty percent of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in Afghanistan (resulting in 90% of all U.S. casualties) are made with components that come from just two legally operating factories in Pakistan.
It would be fair to assume that a similar figure would be true for UK forces.
There is no doubt that the IED is the single largest casuse of casualties and serious injuries for UK forces and the UK has devoted an enormous multi agency effort to reducing the impact of IED’s and defeating them.
Surely after nearly a decade in theatre, hundreds of casualties and several billion Pounds direct expenditure and just as much spent on aid to Pakistan would it be a reasonable expectation that the issue of legally produced ammonium nitrate fertiliser coming from just 2 factories would have been resolved.
The report goes on to say
Each year, the two factories each pump out about 400,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate—a common fertilizer used by farmers—and about 1% of that makes it to insurgents, Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, head of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), said in a breakfast meeting with defense industry representatives this morning. While NATO forces have a lock on where the fertilizer comes from and where it goes upon initial sale, “what we don’t understand is how this ammonium nitrate gets from these factories to the insurgents,” he said
This is not a new story.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph in September 2009, Christopher Booker wrote
In the same month US Marines captured a vast cache of IEDs made from agricultural ammonium nitrate fertiliser in 25 kilogram bags indistinguishable from the thousands of tons of fertiliser supplied to Afghanistan under Western aid programmes. It has long been obvious that many of the roadside bombs used to kill British and other Western troops are made from fertiliser paid for by UK and other Western taxpayers.
Overlooking for one moment the influence of the Pakistan government are there are any alternatives to Ammonium Nitrate to stop it turning into Ammonium Nitrate Fule Oil (ANFO) explosives?
I looked at this when the story in the Telegraph was published, the MoD issued a press release stating that steps were taken to ensure the convertible ammonium nitrate was not supplied by it or DFiD in its projects but this obviously misses the point that the volume provided by the UK to Afghan farmers is minute in comparison to the total amount used.
In the Think Defence post I looked at a Honeywell product called Sulf N.
What is a non explosive fertiliser and what is an explosive fertiliser?
The real problem in interdicting supplies of ammonium nitrate based explosives is the fact that ANFO explosive is in widespread commercial use, as are ammonium nitrate fertilisers. From above, there are 2 large factories in Pakistan churning out tens of thousands of tonnes of the stuff.
Used as a high nitrate fertiliser it is produced by a number of industrial and small scale processes and usually packaged in bulk or in bags as small pellets or prills. Although it is not explosive in itself it is an oxidising agent and has been the cause of many industrial accidents, for example an explosion aboard an ammonium nitrate loaded ship in Texas City that killed over 500 people. Subsequent investigations have resulted in a number of storage recommendations and regulations that cover issues such as nitrate percentage, storage conditions, bulk and other conditions. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive issues these regulations.
It is probably fair to say that in conflict zones, such best practice and regulations do not exist or are not complied with.
Ammonium Nitrate can be induced to decompose explosively by detonation and it is this that makes it attractive as both a commercial and improvised explosive. ANFO type explosives are the largest type in commercial use, mostly in the mining and construction industries. This commercial product is often mixed on site and is considered to be very safe. With an ever keen eye on cost reduction, the mining industry has now worked out how to utilise waste oil in slurry explosives.
When used as an explosive it needs a booster charge to initiate explosive decomposition and in large quantities can be incredibly destructive. The Oklahoma and Bishopgate bombs were reported as using ANFO or ANFO variants.
Ammonium Nitrate based fertilisers are widespread and therefore difficult to control, they remain a common and effective means of creating improvised explosives even though increasing regulation has reduced the demand.
Recognising the commercial potential benefit of a non explosive alternative Honeywell has developed Sulf-N-26 that fuses ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate.
From the Sulf-N website
- Sulf-N® 26 technology fuses ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer and explosive) with ammonium sulfate (a fertilizer and fire retardant)
- The result is a “double salt” matrix with two AN molecules for each molecule of AS
- The AS in the Sulf-N® 26 matrix dampens the rate of AN combustion
- When used as a supplementary fuel source for high explosives, Sulf-N® 26 is less effective than sugar or sawdust
- When mixed with a sensitizer (as in AN/fuel oil bombs), Sulf-N® 26 is as ineffective as sand
Tests have shown that the product has a number of agricultural benefits and is effectively inert.
Because Sulf-N-26 is a patented product its widespread use is likely to be retarded by cost and licencing issues.
For the Trillions of Dollars in aid and military spending and tens of thousands of lives and limbs lost to IED’s are we aksing too much that some of that be diverted to persuading/funding the Pakistani government to licence Sulf-N and build out a couple of factories?
Can one imagine the transformative impact of having a low detonation potential fertiliser flooding the market in Afghanistan, cheaper than conventional products?