from the December 2009 issue

Special IDF explosives lab attracts international experts

Over the past decade, a small compound of single-story buildings at the IDF base in Tel Hashomer has become a Mecca for munitions and explosives experts from the world over. These buildings host the materials laboratory for the experiments and quality assurance units at the technological division of the ground forces.

The lab is considered to be one of the world's top centers in the field of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a kind of weapon the IDF has been dealing with for decades, and which in the last few years began taking a high toll among American and British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Any weapon component that reaches the IDF - whether confiscated from smugglers, captured in raids on terrorist explosives labs, or collected and pieced together as shards of shrapnel from bombs aimed at IDF soldiers and vehicles - finds its way to this lab sooner or later. The lab's commander, Lt. Col. Eran Tuval, can outline the developments in a terrorist organization's methods by tracing the ingredients of the bombs and their construction.

In some cases, the labs get the actual bomb assembly manuals, neatly written in school notebooks. In other cases, they themselves need to dismantle and rebuild bombs to understand their construction and origins. The lab then produces guidelines for forces in the field to deal with the newest generation of explosives.

Lt. Col. Tuval, a jumpy man with a goatee and a faint Italian accent, is relishing his image of a mad scientist as he carries out controlled explosions in the yard with a cigarette lighter, and skips among the items exhibiting the components of explosive devices currently en vogue in the Gaza Strip. Some are fertilizers and foodstuffs allowed into Gaza as part of humanitarian aid packages. Others are smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under Rafah.

The attempts by Palestinian organization to simplify explosive devices while increasing their impact has led them to try materials not often used in explosives; one example is R-salt, known to Israelis as white cubes for lighting barbecues, which has not been utilized in bombs since World War II. Another innovation is copper covering, which turns the bomb into hollow charges, allowing them to inject a jet of molten metal into armored vehicles - this was how an IDF scout patrolling the Gaza border in his armored jeep was killed in January.

"We see continuous improvement in the materials they use," says Tuval. "They now put copper where they used to put tin. You also get all kinds of chemicals." Recently, the American military began studying the IDF experience. "They never imagined IEDs like that. They're still back in the 1980s, fighting the Soviets. They're making this huge review and came to us to learn everything about the materials and how to take the things apart," says Tuval.

Delegates from other armies fighting in Afghanistan, including the British, Italians and Germans, have also visited the lab to study the threats ahead. British experts, this time from Scotland Yard, also visited the lab in 2005 to learn the types of explosives used in the 2005 London bombings, which were different from bombs they knew from the IRA.

The lab also cooperates with the IDF dog-handling Oketz unit, providing samples of the explosives the dogs are trained to discover. Reports by the lab are used to construct instruments to trace explosives in airports.

The staff is also studying Qassam rockets, and produced instructions for the IDF to build exact copies of the Palestinian Qassam, which they then fired at practice targets, trying to determine the type of protection that would withstand a Qassam strike. All improvements in the Qassam construction, range and explosive force are being duly documented by the lab.

Often the lab only gets the complete materials weeks or months after the event. When the lab was investigating the attack on the tank from which Gilad Shalit was captured, they received new evidence several months after the skirmish - but managed to determine that the rocket-propelled-grenade used by the militants was armed immediately, unlike standard RPGs that arm only after flying for at least 30 meters. This allowed the militants to fire from a very close range.

In other cases, the lab is requested to produce results in real time. During Operation Cast Lead the lab deduced from shrapnel embedded in a paratroop officer's helmet that he was not injured by an IED but by a sniper's bullet, thus making the army aware a sniper was operating in that area.

Sometimes the lab influences the political arena, too. After the Second Lebanon War, Israel accused Russia of providing a large part of Hezbollah's missile arsenal. The Russians, for their part, denied the allegations, claiming the missiles were produced elsewhere. A report by the Tel Hashomer lab's metallurgy expert, Dr. Menachem Retzker, showed the alloy used to produce the missile met specific Russian standards. It was sent to the Kremlin, leading to the removal of a senior weapons export official. This particular accomplishment led to renewed interest by the army in the lab, and to greater funding.

However, despite its many roles - which also include assisting in forensic tests of civilian casualties and quality control of all new weapons introduced into the IDF - the lab is still encountering recruiting problems. "The problem is, we don't have the glow, the aura," says Major Marianne Bitton, who heads the chemical department of the lab. "A lot of our work is classified, and we're not considered to be a sexy unit, so it's hard to bring the right people here."

Like other technological units of the IDF, the lab, too, complains of a shortage in qualified young people with technological background. Tuval is trying hard to persuade veteran officers to stay in the lab, while also hunting for recent immigrants from the former USSR with technical knowledge you can't learn in Israeli schools.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report December 2009

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