Situated approximately 400km north-west of the Afghan capital of Kabul, close to the border with Turkmenistan, the town of Meymaneh is home to a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) operating under the auspices of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Led by Norwegian forces, the PRT helps local authorities maintain security and manage reconstruction projects in Meymaneh and the wider province of Faryab.

It’s a region that Hans Øiom of the Norwegian Defence Logistics Organisation (NDLO) knows well.

A world-leading expert in sensitive munitions, he and his team were drafted in by NATO to ensure that Norwegian and Latvian troops adhered to special procedures governing the storage, handling and transportation of explosives, at the base in Meymaneh and during field operations.

"The NDLO advises military forces how to design facilities for housing munitions, implement procedures for handling explosives and deal with all aspects of ammunition safety," he says. "Our most recent focus has been on the NATO military base at Meymaneh in Afghanistan, both on the ground and via communication channels from NDLO headquarters near Oslo, Norway.

"Depending on the phase of the mission, the ammunition that we deal with comes in multiple configurations − in transport, in prepared storage containers, in ready storage or in the form of munitions stored on military vehicles for potential use in theatre."

NATO and UN directives

Defence industry guidelines and directives differentiate between ‘insensitive’ munitions, those chemically stable enough to withstand mechanical shocks, fire and impact by bullets or shrapnel, and ‘sensitive cargo’, a term employed by security forces.

"Sensitive cargo is not a term that we work with in the international ammunition safety groups, yet it is defined by Norwegian Ministry of Defence regulations as materiel that must be handled in a special way," says Øiom. "When transporting dangerous goods like ammunition, we adhere, almost by default, to United Nations [UN] rules, because we can’t always rely on separate military transport.

"The NDLO advises military forces how to design facilities for housing munitions, implement procedures for handling explosives and deal with all aspects of ammunition safety."

"Exceptions include Class 1 materiel such as operational weapons platforms, which are exempt from UN legislation, while other dangerous goods are governed by civilian transport regulations."

Øiom and the NDLO separate sensitive cargo into four main categories: weapons and ammunition (dangerous materiel); classified technology (confidential equipment or information contained within equipment); key-element materiel (the absence of which disables operability or a main system) and valuable materiel that is especially vulnerable to theft.

The handling, storage and ground transportation of this materiel across the entire logistics supply chain – everything from the packaging and labelling of explosives to the construction and operation of the vehicles used to transport them − is governed by the ‘Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods’, published by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Otherwise known as the ‘Orange Book’, this overarching directive classifies dangerous goods – known as hazardous materials or Hazmat in the US − and the transport risks they pose into nine classes. However, despite widespread international acceptance, the recommendations remain just that, a set of guidelines, as opposed to being mandatory or legally binding in specific countries.

The Orange Book does not, for example, cover the manufacture, use or disposal of dangerous goods, and the burden of responsibility for the management of sensitive cargo has shifted from NATO to the UN, as Øiom explains.

"The modern UN directives were initially encapsulated by NATO in the D-258 document, which was the foundation of the Orange Book and established the recommendations for the safe movement of ammunition and explosives," he says. "However, it isn’t necessarily true that the UN has the best competency when it comes to regulating military ammunition, but we have no choice but to follow those guidelines, since NATO influence in this particular area is limited.

"Some of the UN groups are made up of logistics experts whose main focus is simply moving sensitive and insensitive munitions from one place to another. They don’t necessarily have a balanced view on risk and they don’t always prioritise safety over operational imperatives," he adds.

Computerised risk management

Øiom identifies a marked shift from a deterministic, goal-based approach to the storage and handling of munitions, one that relies on granular detail, to a more flexible, risk-based model.

"We are very much moving toward risk-based approaches in everything that we do," he explains. "The NDLO has implemented new techniques designed to predict the consequences of explosive accidents, beginning nearly 20 years ago in Modrica in Bosnia, when risk-based approaches were used to monitor container storage of ammunition during Norwegian contributions to joint missions.

"NATO and the associated PfP (Partnership for Peace) nations have made valuable contributions, and the risk models that we have in place for storing and handling explosives are now good."

This collaborative approach is encapsulated in NATO’s Allied Ammunition Storage and Transport Publications (AASTPs), which reflect the latest private-sector thinking on risk management as outlined in the influential ISO 31000 international risk management standard published in 2009.

"The NATO advice in AASTP-4 is very much in line with ISO 31000, but specialised to deal with the accidental explosive events," notes Øiom. "Developments in sensitive and low-sensitive munitions can also enhance the safety of operational platforms; an example of this is the acquisition of missiles with IM (insensitive munitions) on vessels. IM articles do not mass detonate or react as violently as other explosives when subjected to cook-off, or bullet, fragment or shape charge impact.

"The broad principle we use is to do things more accurately and quantifiably in the areas that are most vulnerable and have the highest consequences. We use qualitative approaches to get the overview; then we start to calculate effects, responses and probabilities, and quantify them using AMRISK, a windows-based tool where information about the potential explosion sites and parameters describing the exposed objects is keyed in and the risks are calculated.

"The NDLO advises military forces how to design facilities for housing munitions, implement procedures for handling explosives and deal with all aspects of ammunition safety."

"In the US they have the SAFER platform, the Dutch have RISKANAL and, in the UK, Q-Risk. We compare these tools and we have an international working group meeting on this annually. The ultimate goal is to come up with a computerised solution that is ratified by NATO and collapse as many of these models as possible into common advice," he adds.

Norwegian military budget

The Norwegian military has been buoyed by news that the nation’s defence spending will increase from $7.06 billion to $7.20 billion in 2014, ranking it among the top ten defence budgets in Europe, according to Defense News. Front-line forces, mainly the army, will receive an $87-million boost to their operational budgets.

It remains to be seen if any of this money will filter down to the NDLO, which Øiom claims has suffered as a result of spending restrictions in the recent past.

"The defence budget cuts hit us hard in terms of personnel, since we have fewer people to recruit specialists from," says Øiom.

"When I started, we had at least 40 people dealing with explosive safety – now we are down to around 15. The amount of skilled explosives specialists has decreased more than proportionally with the lack of personnel overall in defence."

Despite these cutbacks, Øiom’s expertise remains in high demand at home and abroad. In addition to its work at the NATO camp in Meymaneh, the NDLO was recently brought in to advise on ammunition safety during the construction of an airbase built to house Norway’s new fleet of F-35 fighter aircraft, one of the major programmes being financed by the aforementioned budget increase.

"We rely on international participation to keep munitions competence at an adequate level and it’s steadily becoming harder to foster international contacts and collaboration," he concludes. "We may have a project worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but when it comes to risk assessment, they often tend to be satisfied with qualitative thinking and criteria.

"It leads one to the conclusion that security systems are less evolved than the economical system, and so we lose out sometimes on safety."