On any battlefield, breaching enemy defenses is often the most arduous and deadly part of an offensive. That's especially so when the enemy has had plenty of time to plant minefields or hide IEDs – improvised explosive devices.
So the U.S. Marines – as they move on the Taliban in the Marjah district of Helmand province – are giving thanks for "the Breacher," the latest generation of mine clearance vehicles. Its full name is the Assault Breacher Vehicle and it looks like a cross between a bulldozer and a tank with a set of deadly steel teeth. Which it is: its frame is based on the A1M1 Abrams battle tank, while its plow was developed by a British company and can tear up the dirt to a depth of 14 inches.
The Breacher weighs some 70 tons and yet can travel at speeds of up to 45 mph. In development since the 1990s, it has arrived just in time for a stiff test of its capabilities.
The Taliban have had weeks to place hundreds of IEDs around Marjah, and the early going in the offensive suggests they have certainly slowed down the movement of some allied units. The Taliban are also planting much more powerful and sophisticated devices than they were a year ago. A recent NATO briefing showed that whereas 18 months ago the charge in most IEDs weighed less than 25 pounds, now about three-quarters weigh more than that.
Ahead of the Marjah operation, the Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said, "This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced."
When it hits and detonates a mine or IED, the Breacher hardly shudders. (Watch Marine Corps video of the Breacher in action)
But its greatest asset is the ability to fire rockets with high explosives into a minefield from a distance of some 150 yards. The rockets carry 1,700 pounds of C4 on a line charge – almost like a lasso. When the line lands, it's detonated from within the Breacher and shock waves set off many of the mines. The line can also be used to breach fortifications.
The Marines are probably pretty happy that they persevered with the Breacher after the U.S. Army cancelled a similar program back in 2001 to build a breed of mine clearance vehicles called the Grizzly. There are only a handful of Breachers in service in Afghanistan now, but the Marines hope to have about 50 operational by 2012. And the U.S. Army is now also ordering them. Perhaps that's why one Breacher crew calls their vehicle "the Joker."