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Building bridges: National Guard lends hand with Arnold AFB installation project

Writer: Bradley Hicks  

To bridge the gap between high-elevation installation work and an unaccommodating roadway at Arnold Air Force Base, Arnold Engineering Development Complex team members Ben Weaver and Tim Barkley didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

On Jan. 6, an Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge operated by Guardsmen from the Tennessee Army National Guard was used at Arnold AFB, headquarters of AEDC, to ensure a crane needed for the installation of a manway and piping around the exhaust duct of the J-2 test facility could cross an alleyway with an axle load limit exceeded by the weight of the crane.

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AVLBs are tracked vehicles designed to allow tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other tactical vehicles to cross small rivers, gaps and other terrain obstacles on the battlefield. They are made by converting the body of tanks to haul a metal folding bridge. This bridge can be emplaced and separated from the AVLB to allow combat vehicles to cross.

Both Weaver, AEDC future capabilities director, and Barkley, a capital project manager at Arnold, serve in the Tennessee Army National Guard. The Arnold colleagues first met while serving in the 230th Engineer Battalion, a subordinate unit within the 194th Engineer Brigade. It was also during their service in the state National Guard that each became more familiar with the AVLB.

Along with observing them in action, Barkley once had the opportunity to operate an AVLB during his time as commander of the 190th Engineer Company. Aside from mission planning and warfighting exercises, Weaver’s direct experience with AVLBs is more limited. Still, he is well aware of their value.

“They are an asset within our brigade, and I’ve learned about their capabilities in my role as the operations officer for the brigade and other previous positions,” Weaver said.

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The entrance of the alleyway leading into the work area consists of two trench crossings that each allow for a 13-ton axle load limit. The crane, capable of hoisting 55 tons, weighs approximately 38.5 tons, or 19.5 tons per axle, exceeding the weight limit of the crossings. The bridge component of the AVLB, however, can bear weights of up to 115 tons, providing more than enough support for the crane to cross.

This bridge works by spanning the alleyway entrance to provide support on both crossings while dispersing the weight across the bridge and onto the road.

Drawing on their knowledge and experience of the capabilities within the 194th Engineer Brigade, specifically those within the 190th Engineer Company, Weaver and Barkley pitched the idea of using an AVLB during a roundtable meeting held to discuss the alleyway weight limit quandary. The idea of putting a bridge over the road initially seemed like a bridge too far but, as the proposal was given further study, it appeared to be a viable and practical solution.

“I believe it was Ben who made the comment of dropping a bridge over it,” Barkley said. “While comical at the time, we began looking into the feasibility of it as a potential course of action. After vetting it through a couple other options, we decided that was our best approach.”

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This was due in part to the relatively low cost to utilize the AVLB, requiring around $30,000 in freight costs to transport to Arnold. Another reason for the move was the long-term availability of the AVLB. The bridge, which would allow both the larger 55-ton crane and a smaller one also needed for the project to move freely in and out of the alleyway, could remain at the disposal of Arnold personnel for the duration of the necessary crane support. 

To coordinate the delivery and utilization of the AVLB, Weaver reached out to logistics representatives within the 194th Engineer Brigade with whom he is familiar with in his role as operations officer of the brigade. He also worked with Jessica Means and Stephanie Vandermark in the Air Force logistics office at Arnold to coordinate the shipment of the AVLB.

Barkley also coordinated with logistics personnel in the 194th Engineer Brigade and contacts in the 190th Engineer Company he knew from his time as commander of that unit. Barkley is also Test Operations and Sustainment Contractor project manager for the undertaking at J-2 and, in this role, led coordination involving TOS logistics personnel and the project team.

“The capabilities of the Engineering Brigade include construction, as well as combat engineer capabilities,” Weaver said. “In this case, we’re leveraging the combat engineering capability within the brigade, specifically its mobility support capability normally used to enable maneuver forces, such as armored vehicles, to freely move on the battlefield. Luckily for us, the ability to enable freedom of movement for an M1 Abrams tank lines up with our need at AEDC to enable the movement of a 55-ton crane across a gap to access J2.”

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The commercial delivery of the AVLB was initiated late last year. The AVLB arrived at Arnold from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on Nov. 30.

Officials with the Tennessee National Guard were also instrumental in the execution of AVLB effort. The vehicle was operated by a Guardsman with the 190th Engineer Company while Guardsmen from the 194th Engineer Brigade directed and guided the operation.

After the bridge was emplaced on Jan. 6, a fire truck from Arnold AFB Fire and Emergency Services was driven across to test its ability to cross given an emergency and need to access the work area. This proved successful, and the cranes were subsequently navigated over the bridge and into the worksite the following workday.

“I was very excited for this opportunity to more directly leverage my role in the Tennessee Army National Guard to support the Air Force mission here at AEDC while also providing a training opportunity for the Soldiers in my unit,” Weaver said. “It’s not often we have a real-world bridge emplacement such as this, albeit not exactly a tactical environment.”

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Both Weaver and Barkley said the National Guard Soldiers who assisted in the AVLB effort were happy to support the special mission at Arnold.

“It is great that we were able to call upon the Guard for assistance,” Barkley said. “They were enthusiastic and willing to come through. It was a special mission for them, and they were happy to help.”

Weaver said getting buy-in from the National Guard was easy due its culture and mission to support the community and its citizens. 

“Our brigade conducts community assistance projects every year, predominantly during our annual training period in the summer, where we support local communities and governments in construction projects for parks, schools, etcetera, while simultaneously training our Soldiers in construction tasks needed to complete our Army mission,” Weaver said. “In this case, we were able to do something similar with our combat engineer capabilities to support AEDC in its Department of Defense test and evaluation mission while also getting a training opportunity to emplace the AVLB in a unique situation.”

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Coincidentally, on the same day the bridge was placed at Arnold, the 190th Engineer Company was conducting AVLB training at the National Guard training area in Lavinia.

“I was there observing that training in my National Guard role while Tim was at AEDC overseeing the AVLB emplacement there while communicating back to me the completion status,” Weaver said.

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