Pentagon Running Out of U.S. Suppliers of Energetic Materials

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Defense Department may have to rely on foreign suppliers of certain raw materials that are used in military munitions because of a shortage of domestic manufacturers, a Pentagon probe reveals.
A team of munitions experts from the office of the secretary of defense warned in a report that the U.S. military is at risk of losing domestic sources of explosives, propellants, pyrotechnics and their ingredients, which are collectively known as energetic materials.
“A large number of materials are at risk of becoming unavailable to the Department over the next couple of years,” concluded a tiger team that Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall chartered in February 2012. The group’s findings were discussed at a recent Precision Strike Association meeting in Springfield, Va. Jose M. Gonzalez, director of land warfare and munitions within Kendall’s office, said the team included participants from all branches of the military, U.S. Special Operations Command, every major defense agency, NASA and the Department of Energy.
The group identified 181 “at risk” materials, and four were labeled “critically at risk.” Of the 181, 131 are made either by a single source producer in the United States or only by foreign manufacturers. The unavailability of any of these materials would affect the production of explosives, gun and rocket propellants, and pyrotechnics. “The supply network is very fragile and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future,” the report said.
Gonzalez did not specify which materials were of most concern to the Pentagon. Army officials in 2010 cited triaminotrinitrobenzene, lead azide and calcium silicide among the energetic materials that had either one or no domestic producers.
The issue was brought to Gonzalez’ attention by laboratories and munitions manufacturers, he said. “There was concern about access to critical ingredients.” Kendall is reviewing the tiger team’s findings, said Gonzalez. The dilemma for the Pentagon is whether it should be subsidizing certain U.S. suppliers if their products are considered indispensable. With budget cuts hitting across the Defense Department, this option might be unrealistic, he said. “Throwing money at a problem is going to be harder to do in this fiscal environment.” His office is studying ways in which the Defense Department can be “proactive” in helping to keep key suppliers financially viable and avert the need of a government bailout.
It is difficult to predict if and when the U.S. energetics materials industry will collapse because of the large number of “potential single point failures,” the tiger team said. “A Defense Department-wide solution which includes industry participation is needed.”
Gonzalez said the Pentagon has taken action to revitalize domestic production of triaminotrinitrobenzene, or TATB, which he called a “good news story.”
To revive the TATB industrial base, the Pentagon resorted to the DoD-Ordnance Technology Consortium, a public-private partnership with 214 member companies. DOTC members were asked to propose ways to produce and reclaim qualified TATB. At least one U.S. contractor, BAE Ordnance Systems, has made the cut, Gonzalez said. “I've been told that BAE at Holston [Army Ammunition Plant, in Tennessee] has made the first 500 pound batch of material and appears to meet specs.”
Gonzalez noted that government-industry collaborations such as the DOTC are examples of how to improve the military procurement process. “It’s an efficient mechanism for putting dollars on projects,” he said. It allows the Pentagon to use the so-called “other transaction authority” in the Federal Acquisition Regulation to expedite contract awards. The DOTC, he said, “allows us to have open dialogue that is not available in other ways." The consortium over the past three years has done $408 million worth of business across 169 projects.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Topics: Ballistics, Bomb and Warhead, Logistics, Manufacturing, Strategic Weapons

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