Community warns of China’s edge developing explosive materials


Energetics: Community warns of China’s edge developing explosive materials

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Should a conflict erupt over Taiwan tomorrow in the South China Sea, the US military could be at a tactical disadvantage due to China’s advances in the use of energetic materials – the chemicals used as propellants, pyrotechnics and explosives, experts said.

“Modern combat capability is a function of range, speed, end effects, signature management and security, and essentially arose out of energetics,” said Ashley Johnson, technical director of the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, at the 2022 Breakthrough Energetics Conference recently held at Purdue University. The event was organized by the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

“We have built up a huge lead [in energetics] Coming out of World War II into the Cold War and tenaciously fighting a determined and capable opponent has brought our capabilities to a very high level,” he added. “Then we had to deal with it [the global war on terrorism]’ which Johnson said required different tactics and systems not based on advances in energetics.

“It’s been a bear market in energetics and ammunition for well over 30 years and the urgency is high now based on the threats,” he said. “Our diminished capacities and skills, knowledge, skills, abilities and infrastructure are becoming more and more exposed.”

China and other opponents are developing weapons with more powerful chemicals. Such energetic materials can propel warheads longer distances or allow ships and planes to carry more ammunition because they can be made smaller and lighter and still have the same explosive power, experts at the conference said.

“There are few things I have come across in my studies and wargamings of future warfare and future force development that have as significant a potential impact on operational success as that of energetic materials,” said Tim Barrick, Director of Wargaming at Corps University’s Marine Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. “Regaining an advantage in energetic materials must be a strategic imperative for the United States,” he added.

The conference was the result of a study commissioned by Congress and published in June 2021 by the Energetics Technology Center, a co-sponsor of the event.

Energetics and Lethality: The Imperative to Reshape the US Military Kill Chain found that energetics development stalled in part because the Department of Defense had not prioritized increased yield, longer range, smaller form factor, or other features.

As a result, the US military continues to rely on the same critical chemicals as it has since the 1940s: RDX and HMX, which were developed 120 and 70 years ago, respectively.

“RDX and HMX together represent the latest significant innovations in [energetic materials] be widespread in US systems,” the ETC study states.

The report notes that researchers at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in China Lake, California, developed a far more powerful material in the 1980s. “The explosive and propellant properties of CL-20 far exceed those of RDX and HMX,” states the report.

But CL-20 is no longer used by the US military today.

John Fischer, senior scientist at the Energetics Technology Center, said he left the field of energetics in 1989 because every goal set for the energetic materials community was not only met, but exceeded by CL-20.

“We didn’t make it across the finish line, though,” he said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the urgency for more powerful explosives, the cost of testing and fielding the new material was high, and in the absence of requirements the buyer community had no interest in the CL-20, even though it was 40 percent more powerful than HMX- Explosives in some applications, Fischer said.

China has experimented with this, incorporating CL-20s into weapon systems. However, according to conference participants, the Ministry of Defense did not hear the alarm.

“The requirements are not passed on,” said Teresa Mayer, one of the study’s authors and executive vice president of research and partnerships at Purdue.

“If we talk about the research and development and the [science-and-technology]that ability to transition has been severely limited because if you don’t have performance drivers prioritized beyond schedule risk and cost, we can deliver great science and technology, but we’re trying to push rather than pull.”

In contrast, she noted, there is a demand from industry and the Department of Defense for advanced microelectronics. That demand is pulling innovation from the research community and bringing new technology across the “death valley,” which is currently consuming innovation in power engineering, she said.

“There’s no place where we can just invest money to fix that,” said Mike Holthe, director of the Office of Platforms and Weapons Technologies in the Undersecretary of Defense’s Office of Research and Engineering.

“We can’t just take money and put it in [science-and-technology] Land and go out and develop new whiz, great great energetics – what we’ve been doing for decades,” he continued. “We need to fundamentally rethink how we approach energetics and how we approach our munitions business” to strengthen the industrial base and inform requirements.

If advanced energetic materials – or the effects those materials deliver – are not baked into the requirements, procurement officials will not take chances with new materials.

“Operators need to determine what their actual needs are from an operational perspective,” said Tom Russell, president of Defense Science and Technology Consultants and former deputy assistant secretary of the Army.

“Right now the challenge is in that [requirement development] It’s done at the system level, and energetics is a commodity within the system, so you have to derive a requirement from that,” he said.

And operators, the people driving requirements development, weren’t present at the conference, he noted.

“So it’s telling me that there’s a disconnect in the community and that we’re not taking the message to them, and they don’t really understand how important our message is to see if that could help them change their requirements… to improve the skills,” Russell added.

Part of the problem is how the message is delivered, a Defense Department official said.

“Most people in the Pentagon can’t spell energetics,” said Christopher O’Donnell, assistant secretary of state for platforms and weapons portfolio management.

“[We] can hardly get people interested in munitions… and as we can see what’s going on in Ukraine… it’s about munitions,” he said.

“If you go in and say that my energetic material is two, four or ten times better than current energetics, it just misses people,” he said. “You really have to put it in the context of the martial advantage I’ll get by doing these things.”

While the panelists debated how this message might be conveyed, there was no argument about the need to reinvigorate the energetic materials production base. The energetics supply chain spans the globe, and often the Pentagon doesn’t know who supplies the chemicals that contractors and their subcontractors source.

The war in Ukraine has brought supply chain concerns to the fore, said Christine Michienzi, the deputy deputy secretary of defense’s chief technology officer for industrial policy.

“We are giving ammunition to Ukraine and we also need to figure out how to stockpile our stockpiles and some of our partner and ally stockpiles, and do it faster,” she said.

The US industrial base does not have the capacity to quickly replenish ammunition stocks, and one of the limitations is the production of energetic materials, she said.

“Our demand is small and volatile,” she said. “Large commercial chemical companies really have no interest in the DoD market. The industry is writ large…was really driven by efficiency, not resilience or national security.”

As a result, some chemical manufacturers have exited the market, leaving China as the sole source of many critical chemicals used in US weapons. And in cases where materials are manufactured in the United States, it is often done at one facility, resulting in backlogs and single points of failure.

As with many studies and conferences, it is often easy to identify the problems and recommend solutions, but implementing the fixes is not so easy. The hard work is just beginning, said members of the Energetics Technology Council in interviews after the conference.

Two key areas of focus will be developing the diversity and resilience of the supply chain and bridging the gap between requirements and acquisition staff and scientists and innovators.

“If I could only do one thing, I would steal a page from the pharmaceutical industry’s playbook and move it to the Defense Department’s gun world,” Fischer said.

The pharmaceutical industry developed a close relationship with the National Institutes of Health and implemented a model called “transitional medicine,” he said.

“That means that if there’s a promising drug candidate, the lab gets together with the pharmaceutical industry and the people who might be making the drug, and they actually start sharing information early on,” he said.

This eliminates the time-consuming linear development and production process, and all parts of the chain coordinate their parts early, allowing the process to begin when a product is ready for manufacture. That’s how COVID-19 vaccines were made so quickly, he noted.

“So if we could apply that approach to the munitions industry, we would now have Department of Defense labs, Department of Energy labs, academia working with the industry and everyone involved. There are no surprises in it. A simultaneous process is created in which everyone is working towards the same common goal,” added Fischer.

“It wouldn’t be easy to implement by any means, but if we could do something like that, the opportunity to bring new material into the system would just fly off the charts,” he said.

One way the Energetics Technology Center hopes to make progress is by working with lawmakers.

“We recognize that Congress needs to be involved,” said Bob Kavetsky, Founder and CEO of the ETC. He said the center has been aggressive in reaching out to Congress because it controls the money and because it can help twist the Pentagon’s guns.

“Sometimes the DoD doesn’t move in the direction that we think it should,” Kavetsky said. “We can use the Hill people to apply a little bit of appropriate pressure.”

The challenge is to create a sense of urgency before a crisis like a Chinese attack on Taiwan occurs.

“We walk a fine line and are not chicken little,” said Kavetsky. “We claim that there is a big problem. What is this galvanizing thing without being a galvanizing thing?”

Subjects: energy


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