A lot of highly classified equipment goes into making a missile so it was logical that European group MBDA should want to open a demilitarisation plant where the missiles it makes can be dismantled and destroyed at the end of their shelf-life.
Jean-Yves Biton, head of the project, told FOB during a site visit yesterday, 13 January, that “France could not send its missiles to be destroyed in another country because parts of the missile: the radar for example, are top secret. And, as we all know, there is no better way to see how something is made than by dismantling it carefully!”
The group contributed 75% of the €12m investment to modify four existing buildings on its site in Subdray, near Bourges in the centre of France. The plant opened in June 2014 and then a year ago a purpose-built thermal treatment plant opened on the same site.
However, unlike the Simmel Difesa plant near Rome which we visited in mid-December (see our 16/12/15 blog entry “Taking Ammuniton Apart”) and which dismantles unclassified ammunition re-cycling up to 80% of the military-grade explosive as well as the metals etc. contained in ammunition, the MBDA site was built not to re-cycle but to ensure that the destruction process meets the stringent emission levels imposed by European Parliament law 2010/75/EU, “the only one to do so in the country,” Biton claims.
The MBDA site does recycle the electronic parts and some of the metal, but only after the latter’s origins have been rendered unrecognisable. Sadly I was not allowed to take photographs but the resulting lumps of metal would not look out of place in a modern art museum!
The ammunition is taken apart by hand and the propulsive powder “cake” carefully removed.
It is then, cautiously, taken to another building where it is cut into 3kg slices by a robot armed with a water jet.
These slices are packed again and taken, together with smaller pyrotechnic segments (used to open the winglets of a missile for example), to the thermal treatment plant where they are burned.
The process is complex but suffice it to say that they go through a thermal oxidizer, a spray dryer, a quench and a catalyst oxidizer burner. A large tank of water sits amongst the rest of the equipment so that it can flood water over everything should overheating occur. “We’ve had to do that twice so far,” Biton remarked.
MBDA’s clients are the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) and the French Ministry of Defence. Its initial contract was to destroy 36,000 pieces of ammunition including 22,000 now-illegal Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and 13,000 cluster shells by 2018 “but its done! Two years ahead of schedule,” Biton said. It is now busy destroying 1,100 missiles (AS30s, S530s, Magic 2s and Apaches) and 450 decoys and Biton told FOB that a contract to destroy 5 million cartridges has also just been signed.
These are destroyed in a detonation chamber, made by Swedish company Dynasafe, which can destroy 16,000 5.56mm cartidges per hour. “The same machine has been installed by the United States in Libya to destroy chemical weapons,” Biton said.
“Bit by bit we’re going to diversify,” he added, so that the plant may last much longer than the 15 years of its initial activity plan.