Magazine article National Defense

Navy Center Works to Keep Energetics Industrial Base Moving

Magazine article National Defense

Navy Center Works to Keep Energetics Industrial Base Moving

Article excerpt

A US. submarine fired two unarmed Trident missiles on June 2 as part of its certification for redeployment in the US. nuclear triad.

Industry manufactured most of the missiles' components--one exception being an energetic material called "ABL 2434," a casting powder in gas generators that power launch.

The only organization in the United States that can produce this material is the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head explosive ordnance disposal technology division.

Energetics are energy-releasing chemical materials, like explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics. They are central to weapons, determining range, time-to-target and various intended effects. They are also hard to develop and produce--and few do it. The division develops energetics and related items for undersea, sea surface, land and air munitions. It also speeds production, either by helping industry or doing the manufacturing itself It bridges gaps in the defense industrial base to get energetics into use--a bridge that will become even more important in the future.

Just developing energetics is hard. It takes special equipment, facilities and practices. It also demands scientists, with at least five to 10 years of experience and mentor-ship in an empirical, trial-and-error process, similar to pharmaceutical development. Chemists begin design at the molecular level and then synthesize ingredients. Formulations follow, with additives used to modify energy releases and bind and stabilize materials. These formulations change if employment means, intended effects and/or environments change. Chemists then scale up, testing larger amounts, seeing if they work as intended.

Development also takes time. For example, the thermobaric munition--which creates heat and pressure and was first used in 2002 against Taliban hidden in deep and winding Afghan caves--resulted from research and development begun decades before at Indian Head.

The division develops 13 explosive types in 47 Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy weapons, which encompasses 75 percent of explosives in U.S. weapons. It also developed cartridge/propellant activated devices that rapidly initiate ejection seats and even fire extinguishers. Today, it supports these devices on more than 11,000 defense aircraft.

Any technology's challenge is going from lab to production--especially energetic materials. It means taking an explosive or propellant, developed in small amounts, and manufacturing large, uniform quantities that will work as intended. Their manufacturing starts with small amounts and scales-up, like producing 50 pounds, then 350, 2,000 and 6,000 pounds. The process requires specialized equipment--such as vertical mixers, casting machines and 2,000-ton presses--and a considerable number of facilities. Trident's ABL 2434 casting powder is made in 72 buildings.

Energetics production also requires manufacturers, which is currently a problem for the Defense Department. Almost no commercial market exists for military energetics; thus, munitions manufacturers depend on DoD procurements, which wax and wane. As they waned, so have manufacturers' numbers. Seventy percent of private manufacturers left the industry after procurement cuts between 1985 and 1994, reported Bob Seraphin and Rich Palaschak in the January 2014 issue of National Defense. Once, five major U.S. companies made propellants. Today, there are two. Many plants are old and slow to respond to changing needs.

Energetics manufacturing also faces a future challenge: 181 energetic materials are at risk of becoming unavailable to the department in the near future, according to a team chartered by the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in 2012. Of these, four are "critically at risk" and 131 are made by one U.S. producer or foreign manufacturers.

The department is currently procuring one ingredient from China, butanetriol, for the Hellfire missile propellant, stated then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2011. …

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