McGill professor linked to U.S. military

Student uncovers ties between Professor of Mechanical Engineering and research on development of thermobaric bombs

By Drew Nelles
The McGill Daily January 15, 2007

Thermobaric bombs are used in the Afghanistan war to attack Taliban and al Qaeda fighters hiding in extensive cave complexes.  Courtesy of the United States Defence Department

Thermobaric bombs are used in the Afghanistan war to attack Taliban and al Qaeda fighters hiding in extensive cave complexes. Courtesy of the United States Defence Department

A McGill student has uncovered links between the U.S. military and an engineering professor.

Cleve Higgins, an activist with the radical student group GrassRoots Association for Student Power (GRASPé), discovered that a research project co-authored by Mechanical Engineering Professor David Frost was presented at a July 2006 International Detonations Symposium in Virginia. The paper received funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a combat support division of the U.S. Department of Defense.

At the Symposium – a conference partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense – Frost presented a paper titled “Effect on Scale of a Blast Wave from a Metalized Explosive.” The paper’s acknowledgements state: “This work was funded partially by the Advanced Energetics Program of DTRA.”

In an email to The Daily, Frost stated that he has never received direct funding from the DTRA. He explained that it was Defence & Research Development Canada (DRDC) that funded his research for the paper, and that the nod to DTRA funding was added by his colleague Fan Zhang, a employee of the DRDC, to acknowledge “the normal collaboration of U.S.-Canada defense research groups.”

Other co-authors included a McGill research engineer and Robert Ripley, an employee of Halifax-based engineering company and military contractor Martec.

Higgins acknowledged that “the exact way that funding went to [Frost] isn’t clear,” but he insisted that the research must have direct military applications, as it was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Regardless of how the money went to the work, [Frost] was the main researcher, and the US military felt it was worth funding that research,” Higgins said. “There are likely more connections like this.”

The indirect links between Frost and the DTRA centre on the development of thermobaric bombs – a type of weapon the U.S. military rushed through production after September 11, 2001, for combat against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in caves during the Afghanistan war.

At the 2006 Symposium, Frost also worked with two DTRA employees on another project entitled “Casing Influence on Ignition and Reaction of Aluminum Particles in an Explosive.” Frost worked on this project along with several other researchers, including Ripley, Zhang, and two DTRA employees: Kibong Kim and William Wilson.

Wilson, who could not be reached for comment, handled an $850,000 DTRA contract in 2005, that focused on thermobaric weapons development, and called for more research into “effects of charge-casing material and fragmentation on reaction kinetics” – the topic of the paper on which Frost and Wilson collaborated.

Thermobaric bombs spray combustive chemicals into the entrance to a cave and then explode, lighting the mixture of air and chemicals on fire and sending a fireball and shockwave into the tunnel strong enough to disable equipment and suck the air out of people’s lungs, killing those hiding deep within.

Frost’s links to thermobaric research go back to 2001, when he gave a presentation to the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Advanced Energetics Materials and Manufacturing Technologies, a study co-funded by a contract between the National Academy of Sciences and the DTRA.

The NRC’s final 2004 report makes a recommendation on improving the efficiency of the detonation of thermobaric bombs, citing Frost’s presentation to the Committee on April 29, 2001. It also makes a number of other recommendations to the U.S. Department of Defense, including more research into the development of thermobaric weapons.

In his email to The Daily, Frost denied any link between the NRC report and the DTRA, and said that his presentation to the Committee actually took place in 2002.

Prof has two contracts with Canadian military

McGill’s official policy on research with military applications states that the Vice-Principal (Research) shall report regularly on contracts whose source is a military agency to the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, and bring all such contracts before McGill’s highest governing body, the Board of Governors, for approval. After approval, Senate must be informed.

Higgins said that he has made a request to the Secretariat for reports in Senate from the VP Finance about military funding for research at McGill. According to Higgins, the office of the Secretariat has said that they will look into it.

The Vice Principal (Research and International Relations) could not be reached for comment.

According to Mechanical Engineering Department Head Arun Misra, Frost “does not have a single source of U.S. funding.”

“I will not allow any weapons-development research in this department,” Misra said.

He added that he doubted that Frost would be involved in weapons research, describing him as a “very, very mild-mannered person.”

“Any work he is doing is irrelevant to the development of weapons,” he said. “He’s working on high-speed reactive flows. It is the understanding of basic physics.”

Frost, currently teaching the Thermodynamics 1 class in the Faculty of Engineering, lists his research interests as “[e]xplosions, high-speed combustion processes, and shock wave physics” on his profile on the McGill web site. He also works in the Shockwave Physics Group, a research group in the Mechanical Engineering Department that focuses on the study of detonation and combustion.

Misra admitted that Frost does have two grants from the Canadian Department of Defense, but said that both are defensive in nature, and relate to mine-clearing and protective materials rather than offensive-weapons research. He added that Frost is the only Mechanical Engineering professor with grants from the Canadian military.

Books not bombs

Higgins discovered the current links to the military through online research after undergraduates passed a motion at October’s General Assembly mandating SSMU to oppose negative corporate influence at McGill.

According to Higgins, these links are important because they represent a concrete way for McGill students to protest war and imperialism.

“McGill…seems to be a part of, this larger process of military intervention around the world,” he said. “That research doesn’t need to be happening here. This is something that can be stopped.”


A brief history of the military and McGill

1967 – 1971

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Department of Defense gave McGill $831,415, of which more than $663,000 was for military contracts.

The funding was revealed by a group of seven McGill students working with Samuel Noumoff, at the time a McGill Political Science professor, in a 250-page report entitled “How to Make a Killing,” released in 1972.

1977 – 1985

Two McGill professors conducted research in fuel-air explosives – weapons closely related to thermobaric bombs – funded by the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian Department of National Defense.

One of those professors was John H. Lee – currently the head of the Shockwave Physics Group, the same detonation-research group in McGill’s Mechanical Engineering Department that Frost works in.

2001 – 2006

Professor David Frost appears to have been linked to research of thermobaric bombs, indirectly funded by the DTRA, a counter-weapons of mass destruction agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Since shortly after September 11, 2001, the DTRA has been active in the development of thermobaric weapons, which are “designed to enhance lethality in tunnel environments,” according to its web site. Thermobaric weapons are currently used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2000, the international monitoring organization Human Rights Watch condemned Russia’s use of a similar weapon in Chechnya in 1999.

– compiled by Drew Nelles

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