The production of smart munitions may be jeopardized by instability in the
battery manufacturing sector, Army officials fear. Although batteries often
are not viewed as critical components, some munitions programs have been delayed
because of battery problems, experts said. Developers of smart munitions generally
turn most of their attention to the warhead, the guidance system or the propellant,
but not to the batteries.
The Commerce Department recently completed an industry study focused on the
niche market for tiny, but complicated batteries that power munitions, such
as artillery rounds. Details of the report are unavailable, partly because it
contains proprietary data on manufacturers.
“All I can say is that there is some concern,” said Allan Goldberg,
a battery program official at the Army Research Laboratory. “You have
a limited industrial base and a limited number of purchases,” he told
National Defense Magazine. During the Vietnam War, he said, the United States
was producing a million artillery batteries a month. Now, 200,000 batteries
are considered a “big buy.”
For each of the two main types of munition batteries—liquid electrolyte
reserve and thermal batteries—there are only two or three manufacturers.
According to Goldberg, the only makers of liquid electrolyte batteries are Alliant
Techsystems in Horsham, Pa., EaglePicher Technologies in Joplin, Mo., and KDI
Precision Products in Cincinnati, Ohio. For thermal batteries, the two manufacturers
are EaglePicher and Enser Corp. in Pinellas Park, Fla.
In a presentation to the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference
in Arlington, Va., Goldberg cited two weapons that were either delayed or could
have been delayed because of difficulties in manufacturing the batteries. One
was the M-234/235 self-destruct fuze for the dual purpose improved conventional
munitions grenades, and the other is the battery for the Excalibur artillery
At the core of the debate is the state of the industrial base. Turning to commercial
battery giants isn’t an option, said Goldberg. “The total number
of custom batteries for all of the Defense Department and Energy Department
munitions applications, are a drop in a very large bucket compared to commercial
battery production, where one company alone makes 4.2 billion batteries a year.”
One problem is the difficulty of manufacturing such small batteries. Production
line nozzles can clog when forced to rapidly insert minute amounts of electrolyte
into liquid reserve batteries. These components must have a quick rise time
or the ability to generate power speedily. “Some rounds may not power
up when fired. They may power up when the sub-munitions are dispersed,”
Goldberg and others are concerned that the current sales and profit margins
will discourage research into munitions batteries—at a time when munitions
are growing smaller and smarter, thus demanding more power.
The Commerce Department study came about at the Army’s request. It examined
a variety of solutions. “One permissible recommendation is for the government
to step in and take over these companies,” said Goldberg.
“The issue is, are we going to have the small batteries and small power
systems these future systems will need? The direction we’re going in our
weapons systems and our requirements would make us believe that the expectations
for power sources are going to be more difficult to meet.”
Some manufacturers aren’t quite as pessimistic. Bill Harsch, director
of market and business development for EaglePicher, said there are “at
least two manufacturers in each of the [battery] chemistries that are very stable
However, he readily acknowledges that this is a niche market. “It’s
only a $20 million business for us,” he said. In contrast, batteries for
conventional Army missiles alone generate $150 million a year for EaglePicher.
The company makes several types of batteries for defense and space applications.
“I don’t know that there is any incentive to enter the business,”
Harsch said. “These [munitions] batteries are a part of our business,
but not a large part of our business. If we were a small startup company, I’d
be concerned about staying in the business. But we’ve been in this since
Because profit margins are small, Harsch sees little enticement for research
and development. “I think the people involved are very dedicated…
But it’s a constant battle to make money, because the technology is very,
very difficult. And they want very low costs.
There has to be to a lot of development in order to bring these technologies
up to the new specifications.”
He cites problems with the battery for the Army’s Excalibur smart artillery
projectile. “There has been an issue with a rise in voltage rise time.
They’re really pushing the envelope of technology. … We need to
tweak the design.”
Concerned about the supply of batteries, one fuze manufacturer produces its
own lithium reserve batteries. KDI manufactures the M234 fuze for the dual-purpose
improved conventional munitions. Batteries aren’t its primary business,
but the company found it more convenient to make its own power source for the
“We make batteries now, because I could not find a good supplier that
met my needs,” said Eric Guerrazzi, president of KDI, which is part of
L3 Communications. “I got into the business totally in self defense, because
I can’t deliver fuzes without batteries.”
“Everyone who had any expertise in batteries left the defense market
and went to cell phones and computers,” said Guerrazzi. “Those that
are left are scraping by with no incentive to improve their products.”
While Harsch doesn’t believe the industry is in bad shape, he does see
areas where government intervention could help. “There are tax incentive
programs they could look at, or of course just out-and-out better pricing.”
Munitions batteries come with unique requirements not found in any other industry.
They must be capable of lying dormant on a shelf for 20 years, and then discharge
their power in a fraction of a second. They must function in temperatures ranging
from minus 45 degrees F to a steamy 145 degrees F, and withstand being fired
out of a cannon that subjects them to as many as 100,000 Gs [the force of gravity].
Batteries that power munitions often are as small as pencil erasers. The M234/235
self-destruct fuze, used in the dual-purpose improved conventional munitions
grenades, has the smallest battery in any current U.S. system. It’s only
0.13 cubic centimeters, and consumes 20 to 25 microliters of electrolyte. Most
munitions batteries are larger, with the one powering Multi-Option Fuze for
Artillery using 2.5 milliliters in a battery that is 19 cubic centimeters.
Doug Troast, who leads guidance system development for the Excalibur, blamed
changing requirements rather than battery problems for delays in the program.
He said Excalibur’s designers paid careful attention to batteries from
the start. “If the battery doesn’t work, then nothing else does.”
But Goldberg isn’t confident that munitions designers are getting the
message. “They have a way of developing a system and it’s pretty
well set, and it would take a radical change of thinking to treat batteries