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China's final frontier

The Chinese are latecomers to space, and desperate to catch up. Two years after shooting down a sate

Dongfan Chung had lived in Orange County, California, for 45 years. The 72-year-old, known as Greg to his friends, led a quiet life with his artist wife and son. Quiet, that is, until dawn on 11 February 2008, when the FBI came to his home to arrest him on eight counts of espionage.

Chung, who had worked for Rockwell International and then Boeing - both companies involved in operating the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station for Nasa - is accused of sending confidential information on the US space programme to China over a 30-year period. His trial begins on 6 May. If convicted, he could face spending the rest of his life in jail.

What could have made him do it? The indictment issued by the District Court of California includes extracts from a letter Chung wrote in 1979 to a professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China: "I don't know what I can do for the country. Having been a Chinese compatriot for over 30 years and being proud of the achievements by the people's efforts for the motherland, I am regretful for not contributing anything . . . I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernisations of China."

A list found in Chung's possession showed the extent of the knowledge to which he had access; it included manuals on aircraft and space shuttle design as well as military specifications. It seems he would simply take documents out of the office, hide them at his home, and then travel to China to present the information, sometimes using his wife as a foil; he pretended on one occasion that they were going there at the invitation of a Chinese art institute. His hosts were grateful. Gu Weihao, an official of the ministry of aviation in Beijing, signed off a letter to Chung saying: "It is your honour and China's fortune that you are able to realise your wish of dedicating yourself to the service of your country." Chung was playing his patriotic part in the construction of the new China, ensuring the motherland gained that defining accessory of a great power: a space programme.

The country's space story begins, as the China National Space Administration white paper puts it, "50 splendid years" ago under Chairman Mao with the development of a ballistic missile programme. Over the next generation, space and nuclear research continued and expanded. By 2003, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to launch a manned mission into space; the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut took place last September. Footage of the event shows Zhai Zhigang waving a Chinese flag as he drifts against the black sky, attached by an umbilical cord to the Shenzhou VII spacecraft. The red flag catches the sunlight reflecting off the earth. Zhai's voice crackles: "My country, please have faith in me. I and my team will finish this mission."

Zhai became a national hero. He had shown the world how quickly China was progressing. In a speech shortly afterwards, the then Nasa administrator, Michael Griffin, acknowledged the achievement. "I personally believe China will be back on the moon before we are," he said. "I think that when that happens Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."

Forty years on from Neil Armstrong's famed first steps, moon landings still capture the imagination. They give countries geopolitical status, prized membership of an elite club. But China's lunar aspirations tell only half the story. All space research develops technology that can have civil or military uses - satellites, for example, can monitor weather patterns or troop movements. The lack of distinction between the two in China causes the US "quite a bit of concern", according to Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There is, he says, "no organisational separation between the civilian and military" parts of the Chinese space programme. Other space-faring nations, such as the US or India, make the division institutionally clear, but in China the whole show is run by the People's Liberation Army. As Yuan says: "The Chinese military understands that modern warfare depends on how you use space."

No wonder the case of Greg Chung prompted a strong reaction. Ken Wainstein, then assistant attorney general for US national security, warned of "the threat posed by the relentless efforts of foreign intelligence services to penetrate our security systems and steal our most sensitive military technology and information". It was, he said, "a threat to our national security and to our economic position in the world". Says Alan Paller, a cyber security expert who advises the US government: "We're talking about the equivalent of the following thing happening at every major defence organisation: a guy is walking into the building, copying files and taking them away. They're not taking 25 files, or 50 files, they're taking millions of files."

In a report to Congress last November, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission claimed that there are about 250 organised hacker groups tolerated and possibly encouraged by the Chinese government. In one year, China was said to have downloaded between 10 and 20 terabytes of data from US government and contractor websites (roughly the equivalent of all the text in the British Library). So what is Beijing doing with it all? Catching up, for one thing. As Yuan says, the Chinese were “latecomers” to space and they want to avoid reinventing the wheel. But the apparent scale of the espionage campaign is making the Americans anxious. Chris Shank, until recently director of strategic communications at Nasa, drops his voice when asked about its effect: “It’s deeply disconcerting . . . They know that we know what is going on and they know it’s hurt relations.”

Beijing dismisses the commission's report as "unworthy of rebuttal". At the time of its release, the foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was defiant. "The commission always sees China through distorted colour spectacles, and intentionally creates obstacles for China-US co-operation through smearing China deliberately and misleading the general public," he said. The official line is that China "is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind".

Alan Paller, for one, doesn't buy it. He has no qualms about saying that China and the US are in an "arms race", pure and simple. Observers in Washington point to the first Gulf War as the moment when the Chinese realised that developing sophisticated technology in space was synonymous with being a major military power. They watched how the Americans used satellite systems for all aspects of warfare - navigation, communications, imagery and early missile attack warnings - and realised that if they were to have any hope of matching US military weight they would need to shape up in space. The Chinese were also being realistic. They knew that closing the gap with the US in conventional military force was impossible. But US dependence on space systems was what Yuan calls their "soft rib". If the Chinese could develop the capability to threaten the US 500 miles above the earth, it wouldn't matter how many tanks they had.

That capability was made dramatically apparent when, in January 2007, a "kinetic kill vehicle" was propelled into space from a base in the remote Sichuan Province. Travelling at 18,000 miles an hour, it successfully hit its target, a Chinese weather satellite. It took almost two weeks for the Chinese to confirm they had done it, despite the international outcry over the "weaponising" of space. "There's no need to feel threatened about this," said their foreign ministry spokesman at the time. To anyone outside the space business, China blowing up one of its own weather satellites doesn't seem like such a big deal. But a China expert and analyst for US defence organisations, Dean Cheng, says that "it made pretty much everyone think differently".

It was, if you like, another Sputnik moment. When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, they demonstrated an ability that worried the US. Sputnik showed that the Soviets could use ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the US. The Chinese anti-satellite test was, similarly, a muscle-flex. For a start, it hadn't been done since the last US exercise in 1985. More importantly, it proved that if the Chinese wanted, they could take out satellites at will. It was, according to Scott Pace, former associate administrator at Nasa and now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, a "surprisingly dirty" move. Dirty in all senses: a cloud of debris from the collision now stretches hazardously for hundreds of miles in space.

Pace, Shank and many other American ­Establishment observers studiously avoid talking of a new space race. So do the Chinese. After the anti-satellite test, they insisted that their intentions were innocent: “Neither has China participated, nor will it participate in an arms race in outer space in any form.” In any case, according to Pace, China is years behind – “roughly in the mid- to late-Sixties period” – in the technology it is creating. He refers to the Chinese space programme, and that of the other emerging giant, India, with a kind of avuncular benevolence. The United States “would be happy to see them on the moon”, he says, yet still he is wary. “There are aspects that look benign, and there are aspects that look worrisome . . . There’s not a lot of insight into who everyone is and how decisions are made.”

This seems to be an understatement. Cheng says no one "had a clue" what was going on when the 2007 anti-satellite test happened. The Chinese are not forthcoming about their space programme; no one was willing to be interviewed for this article. When Michael Griffin went on the first official Nasa trip to China's space facilities in 2006 he didn't get anywhere near a launch site. In his version of events, it was like "a first date, if you will", each side coyly sizing up the other. Others saw it as a clear message from the Chinese that there are aspects of their space programme which are not for sharing.

The stakes could be very high. Yuan believes it is not inconceivable that there could be war at some point between China and the United States, possibly provoked by US support for Taiwan's democratic system, a policy that has long riled Beijing, which insists the island is part of China. The new Taiwanese government has improved relations but, says Yuan, "the problem has not been solved . . . [The Chinese] still have to prepare for a potential conflict."

What this conflict might actually look like is a question that intrigues John Sheldon, an ebullient professor at the US air force's graduate school for air and space power strategy in Alabama. "When I'm teaching US officers I tell them, 'Whatever you imagine space war is going to look like, you're wrong. Darth Vader, Star Trek - get it out of your head . . .'" Instead, he says, it will be "very real, and at the same time rather subtle and mundane", because nobody actually knows how a space war might start, or if we would even know that it had. It could be the jamming of a signal to a satellite, or a software virus that disrupts enemy communications. Or it might simply be "six guys who hide in the bushes and eat snakes for two weeks and kick down the door of your ground station". Either way, "We'll be looking over our shoulders and wondering, 'What the hell happened there?'"

A deterioration in Sino-US relations is in nobody's interests. On a visit to Beijing at the start of last month to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the former US president Jimmy Carter described their bond as being the most important relationship in the world today. Many observers hope that the new president will handle that relationship differently from his immediate predecessor, whose administration's anti-Chinese sentiment one insider characterised as "visceral".

For their part, the Chinese clearly want President Barack Obama to sit up and listen: they released their latest defence white paper describing (though somewhat opaquely) their nuclear capability on the day of his election. Even before he entered the Oval Office, however, Obama's transition team was talking to the Pentagon and Nasa about speeding up production of new military rockets. Recent reports speculate that Obama might merge the two organisations' space programmes - a move that, paradoxically, would mimic the Chinese arrangement. Like it or not, this space race is on.

timeline: the long march into space

    1958 Tiuquan, China's first satellite launch centre, is founded

    1966 The country tests its first guided nuclear missile

    1970 Launch of the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong I

    1987 The Chinese become involved in the international space industry, providing services for the European aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale-Matra

    1990 China launches its first communications satellite

    1992 The Chinese officially begin the country's manned space flight programme

    1999 The first unmanned space flight completes its 21-hour voyage

    2001 The US unilaterally withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. China's muted response ignites fears of a new space race

    2003 Launch of China's first manned mission, making it the third country to send a man (Yang Liwei, pictured below) into space

    2007 China shoots down an old satellite using anti-ballistic missiles, prompting warnings in the US of a future "star wars"

    2008 Dongfan Chung is indicted for passing US space secrets to the Chinese government

    2008 The former fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang carries out China's first ever spacewalk

Kate Ferguson

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009