Large stockpiles of ammunition can be widespread in countries such as Ivory Coast, where old or unwanted munitions are gathered together in a single building indefinitely and without proper storage or maintenance.
Keeping large quantities of ammunition together poses an obvious inherent risk, the severity of which multiplies if, over time, the stockpile degrades becoming increasingly unstable. A key activity in HALO’s ammunition management programme is helping to reduce the threat to life, livelihood and infrastructure by performing large scale destructions of unsafe and unwanted ammunition.
One of the largest unplanned explosions at a munitions site (UEMS) in recent years occurred in Brazzaville, Congo, in central Africa. The explosion left over 250 people dead, more than 2000 injured and left nearly 14,000 homeless. Ivory Coast itself suffered when degraded ammunition stored on a military camp in Daloa exploded in 2012. Fortunately the majority of damage was caused to infrastructure and not lives.
HALO began work in Ivory Coast in 2011, following a request from the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). To date a staggering 184 metric tonnes of various munitions have been disposed of in the country, using the Central Demolition Site (CDS). This is a remote area of land chosen for its distance from inhabited areas, with adequate surrounding high ground to ensure the demolitions can be viewed safely.
Bulk demolitions require planning and logistics. Equipment and personnel are transported to the site by HALO via pickup truck and Land Rover ambulances. Staff live at a nearby military outpost as mass demolitions can involve a series of daily demolitions for periods of up four weeks at a time.
The daily routine begins with the HALO backhoe excavator digging demolition pits - short, narrow trenches one metre deep – where the ammunition is placed prior to destruction. The ammunition must be stacked in strict order, adhering to its design and quantity of explosives to maximise the effect of the planned explosion.
When each of up to four demolition pits have been stacked with ammunition, a plastic explosive 'donor charge', linked to detonating cord and eventually a detonator, is attached to the ammunition. The pit is then back filled using the excavator in order to contain as much of the blast and subsequent fragmentation as possible during the demolition.
At this point all personnel except the officer in charge and their second in command must depart the range and take up post at the security points, or sentry positions. After final checks are made, the detonator is attached and the officer in charge retreats to the well-protected bunker or 'firing point' where the controlled explosion is initiated. Despite being the culmination of hours of physical labour, often in intense heat, the explosions last mere seconds. Nonetheless, it is an exhilarating moment, and knowing that more unsafe or unwanted ammunition will be destroyed at the same time the next day, makes all the effort feel worthwhile.
In addition to its large stockpiles of ammunition, Ivory Coast also has a small quantity of Kh-25 Soviet era guided missiles in storage. Although the missiles are kept in their original sealed packaging and will never be used, there are important humanitarian reasons for their safe disposal.
The propellant inside the missiles’ rocket motors (and most other ammunition propellant charges) begin to decay once it reaches between 10 and 15 years old. At more than 20 years old, these rocket motors are potentially dangerous. The decaying process does not just render them less effective – and therefore less predictable if used – but also causes their chemical composition to change. Such a transformation can cause the accidental initiation of the rocket motor during storage or transportation, causing a mass explosion due to the high explosive warhead at the front of the missile.
The HALO team prioritised the dismantling and destruction of the KH-25 guided missiles, employing highly trained and experienced staff to perform complex and technical procedures in order to minimise the explosive risk as soon as possible. The specific and methodical dismantling of the missiles enabled each component to be safely disposed of on the range.
There can be little doubt that without HALO’s expertise, in partnership with UNMAS, the government of Ivory Coast would continue to have a high level of unsafe munitions stockpiled today. The steady decrease and carefully managed disposal of unwanted and unusable ammunition has bolstered national confidence in the stabilisation process there, ensuring that the risk of future UEMS is minimised.