Brian Clayson has more than a dozen explosives outside his Fort Gordon office.
The collection includes a pressure-cooker bomb similar to the one used during the Boston Marathon attack; a suicide vest commonly found in the Middle East; and a hollowed-out, dynamite-filled boulder soldiers routinely encounter while deployed to Iraq.
While the devices may look real, none of the weapons are made to kill.
All are built to save soldiers’ lives.
“Nothing is active,” Clayson said. “Everything here just makes noise.”
A former Gulf War combat engineer, Clayson heads a staff of 10 civilian employees at Fort Gordon who design and manufacture more than 280 war-type training aids for the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The 45,000-square-foot “fabrication center” – the largest in the Army and one of only five nationwide – collects explosives from around the world, declassifies the items and through the use of $2 million in high-powered drilling systems, water jets and wire cutters, builds prototypes of the devices.
The operation has grown at such a rapid pace the Pentagon increased the facility’s annual workload from 10,000 devices in 2009 to 230,000 devices in 2012.
With a new batch of work orders expected in November, Clayson said his crew has developed a number of cost-saving training aids that together could save American taxpayers more than $1.4 million in defense spending annually.
Clayson’s staff is considered a “jack-of-all-trades,” a group of innovators who understand everything from electrical wiring to wood crafting to painting and 3D modeling, Army officials said.
The local operation starts in the field of battle, with soldier recovery of Soviet grenades, Russian rockets, Israeli smoke bombs, and French and Italian landmines that have been recycled and reused by enemy forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
From there, cleared weaponry is sent to Fort Gordon, where training support staffers examine the items and if they have not already, create a model of the device, replicate it and fashion it into an informational kit of common explosives soldiers may encounter.
Among the Army’s fabrication centers at the Red Stone Army Airfield and forts Knox, Benning and Jackson, Fort Gordon’s facility manufactures two to three times more devices.
The Afghanistan kit alone contains 176 explosives, each of which soldiers are required to recognize by color, shape and content in a lineup before being cleared for deployment.
The remainder of the products includes suicide vests, pressure cooker and backpack bombs filled with nails, rocks and bolts and explosives disguised as soda bottles, dead animals and highway guardrails.
Each have alarms triggered by either a car remote, “dead-man switch,” motion sensor, or clicker.
“Every device we make cannot simply be imagined,” Clayson said. “We go back to the proponent, research its uses and make sure it’s up to date.”
For most weapons, Clayson said a blueprint already exists.
However, for new explosives, Fort Gordon has a 3D scanner that traces a point-by-point image of a device to measure its dimensions and use reverse-engineering software to map out a design.
In the past, Clayson said Fort Gordon requested copyrighted blueprints from private vendors to make weapon molds. Now, the technology is projected to save the Defense Department between $60,000 and $120,000 per drawing, according to an annual report.
The next step in the process involves Leonard Berridge.
“I get to follow the end product all way through, which is truly the best part,” the machine leader said.
Using computer-aided software, Berridge designs a device by first creating a wire frame for a part, and then by turning “surfaces into solids” through the use of a 3D printer to lay resin over powder.
The technology, which is used to make toy G.I. Joes, builds small prototypes, which is molded into large foam and then fashioned into a polyethylene training aid by machinists.
The end process involves more than a dozen machines to cut projectile fins, bomb caps and interchangeable parts.
In 2012, Fort Gordon designed an injector machine that streamlined the process through which M16 sighting devices were made.
In the past, it took an hour to bend and crimp one metal piece. Now the rifle add-ons are made of plastic and can be produced in bundles of eight every 32 seconds, saving the government $1.2 million in labor and materials, according to reports.
This year, the training support is working on a $7 plastic silhouette that – unlike the $20 paper targets offered by outside vendors – would “self-heal” after being hit by a bullet and last for 100 shots, instead of five to seven rounds.
“No one taught us how to build it,” said woodcrafter Scott Harrison, as he heated a target into form. “We came up with the idea in a couple of days and it worked like we thought it would.”