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NEWS | Nov. 9, 2023

Army Reserve Soldiers help test 3D-printed explosives containers during combat engineer course

By Brian Hill Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office

Army combat engineers are tasked with breaching obstacles, and one of the ways they do that is through the use of explosives. But finding ways to make those explosives even more effective — and safer, more cost effective, easier to transport and modular — is a task on which experts continue to work.

When Army Reserve Soldiers assigned to the 102nd Training Division (Maneuver Support) here attended the two-week Combat Engineer Reclassification Course in October, they had the opportunity to assist in testing facilitated by the installation’s Counter Explosive Hazards Center on 3D-printed containers for enhanced explosives effects using the current explosive inventory on which combat engineers are trained.

According to Jon Toth, a CEHC training specialist, who is also an Army Reserve Soldier with the 102nd, this was the first time CEHC and the 102nd have partnered up to test printed containers like this, which continues a project originally started at the EagleWerx Applied Tactical Innovation Center at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to find ways that better channel explosives to increase their effects.

“EagleWerx originally did testing with their own 3D-printed designs and briefed their findings to the (U.S. Army Engineer School),” Toth said. “After that briefing, CEHC was tasked with taking the lead on determining if we could use our ongoing 3D-printing projects to assist in getting a better explosive effect using our designs.”

Toth said they compared the effects produced by nearly 20 different 3D-printed containers during the testing here.

“After the blast, each hole was measured for width and depth to determine the containers with the best explosive effects,” Toth said.

Beyond the ability to produce better explosive effects, the technology being tested has the added potential benefits to the Army of being less expensive, safer and more modular, said Justin Fanatia, who, like Toth, is a CEHC training specialist, who participated in the testing.

“It’s just a force multiplier,” Fanatia said. “We, as a military, have been so stuck on having pre-made charges or bottlenecked into a specific set of charges we can design, but our battlefield and our operational environment is changing rapidly. We can’t rely just on logistics to get me a pre-made thing. My charges need to be scalable and applicable to whatever I’m actually trying to target. So, if I’m making Soldiers smarter, they can go out and it’s not a one size fits all … the whole point of this is to make everything safer. The only way to do that is to have something, where we can apply a theory that allows us that capability. It’s really making Soldiers more capable, more knowledgeable and more effective on the battlefield.”

The students already learn about and work with explosives as part of the course, Toth said, but getting to see more advanced techniques provides additional advantages.

“One of the things we try to emphasize is teaching Soldiers not what to think, because that’s very regimented, but teaching them how to think,” Toth said. “When they understand the theory behind it, then they can apply it in different ways. Another advantage to showing it here in the schoolhouse environment is almost every major (U.S. Army Forces Command) installation has an innovation lab or a 3D printing lab. And so, when they see some of the ideas here, with CEHC partnering with training units here, then they can go back to those FORSCOM installations and already have ideas in their head of what they can use that innovation lab for.”

Ensuring new combat engineers can apply the knowledge they learned in the class is already one of the course learning objectives — providing the most advanced information available on the application of explosive theory is an added benefit to the Soldiers and the units they support, said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Cotter, one of five combat engineer instructors from the 102nd at the testing.

“It goes back to Bloom’s Taxonomy, where they’re going to be starting at the lowest level of understanding, and all the way up to the creation phase is where we want them to be, so that way, they can readily apply their knowledge to the battlefield in any given situation,” Cotter said. “Instead of just looking to the leader, they’re going to be able to create that themselves, and that’s the goal.”

Going forward, Toth said the testing performed here will get further validation.

“We’re going to continue to try other effects with these, just to validate that the effects we had on the range here can be replicated on other ranges, or, obviously, on the battlefield in large-scale combat operations,” he said. “That’s ultimately the goal, is that we find out a base line of charges that can be used in any battlefield in the future.”