Booming Business at Army Ammunition Plants

By Sandra I. Erwin

Two of the Army’s largest ammunition plants are seeing an influx of funds as the service begins to ramp up production of new explosives that are less dangerous to handle and store than traditional materials.

The Army invested $330 million over the past five years in manufacturing facilities at the Holston Ammunition Plant in Kingsport, Tenn., where large-scale production of the “insensitive” explosive IMX is now in progress. A similar effort is under way at the Radford Ammunition Plant, in southwest Va.

“The government has been investing heavily in these two facilities,” said Mike Ervin, director of research and development at BAE Systems’ ordnance sector, which operates both the Holston and Radford plants under an arrangement known as “government owned, contractor operated.” They are two of14 facilities overseen by the Joint Munitions Command.

This year alone, BAE Systems is executing $211 million in contracts at Radford, Ervin said during a recent briefing at the company’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. BAE in March was awarded a $780 million contract for IMX-101 production at Holston.

The Army is seeking to phase out the explosive trinitrotoluene, or TNT, from artillery rounds for safety reasons. Its replacement — known as IMX-101 — is called insensitive because it is more stable and less prone to accidental denotation. It could take up to a decade to replace TNT from all Army large-caliber munitions. A variant called IMX-104 is being produced to replace conventional explosives in Army mortars.

BAE developed IMX-101 — which was named one of 2010’s “Top 50 Inventions” by Time Magazine — in partnership with the Army, Ervin said. The company has been Holston’s operating contractor since 1999, and took over Radford in 2012.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars programmed to modernize these facilities,” said Ervin. They were built in the 1940s to supply explosives and propellants for World War II.

The Army began its quest for improved insensitive munitions in the early 1990s. One of the obstacles it faced was the lack of domestic suppliers for one of the key ingredients needed to make insensitive munitions. Triaminotrinitrobenzene, or TATB, was on the Pentagon’s list of “high risk” energetic materials for which it had to rely on foreign suppliers.  

Made-in-America TATB is still being tested at Holston. It is expected to meet qualification requirements and be approved for mass production by late 2013, Ervin said. TATB is used in military conventional and nuclear munitions. It is one of the least sensitive explosive materials available. U.S.-based production ceased in 1993, and the Army relied on a U.K. vendor until it shut down in 2006. Since then, it has made a big push to develop a domestic source, and BAE in 2011 received a contract to develop and produce TATB.

The Army later held a "common low cost insensitive munitions explosive" competition to select a TNT replacement.Twenty-three suppliers participated but only IMX-101 passed all the Army's test criteria, Ervin said. “We have orders in hand for multimillions of pounds of IMX that we are going to be producing next year for artillery rounds,” he said. “It was always thought that if you implemented insensitive munitions you had to sacrifice performance. Now you can mix and match materials to closely match the performance of legacy materials.”

The Navy, which stores and uses explosives on ships at sea, historically has led the development of insensitive munitions, but the Army has quickly caught up and is now a co-leader in this area, said Ervin.

He said BAE has secured North American production sources for most key ingredients used in new explosives. But he cautioned that the number of chemical manufacturers in the United States and the United Kingdom is shrinking, which could increase U.S. dependence on Chinese and Indian suppliers. “There are significant initiatives to address this,” said Ervin, who is one of two industry representatives on the Defense Department’s Critical Energetics Materials Council.

A Pentagon-led team of government and industry experts last year identified 131 “at risk” energetic materials that 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. TATB is now regarded as a military-industrial success story, officials said.

Ervin said the Defense Department and the Army are focused on this issue and, even as budgets decline and sequestration takes hold across the federal government, programs such as insensitive munitions are relatively safe from the ax. “We are projecting a downturn in the buys of some munitions,” he said. “But this is an area that, because of its importance, seems to be keeping its funding intact."

Topics: Armaments, Ballistics, Bomb and Warhead, Combat Survivability, Manufacturing, Strategic Weapons

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