Navy Center Works to Keep Energetics Industrial Base Moving

By Darrin Krivitsky and Kevin Gessner

A U.S. submarine fired two unarmed Trident missiles on June 2 as part of its certification for redeployment in the U.S. 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 mentorship 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.

“The sole domestic supplier of BT decided to exit the business due to a small market and environmental implications,” he said. 

Despite these challenges, two basic warfighter needs must be met regarding energetics: continuous supply of energetics to make munitions in use and rapid provision of energetics for munitions with new capabilities.   

The division aids energetics manufacturing in several ways.

First, it transfers technology to manufacturers. An example is TATB, or triaminotrinitrobenzene, an insensitive explosive, reducing unintended detonations from shock, fire and projectile impacts.

“TATB is a crucial material for DoD as it is used in many booster and fuzing systems for missiles, bombs and artillery warheads,” stated Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall. “For decades, there had not been a continental United States source of the material.” Indian Head chemists were integral in helping the contractor-operated, Holston Army Ammunition Plant establish its manufacturing of TATB.

The division is also an energetics manufacturing technology center. This involves helping industry manufacture faster, better and cheaper. In Afghanistan, foot-mobile Marines carry a backpackable, anti-personnel obstacle breaching system. It launches a rocket towing a line charge, which breaches improvised explosive devices and mines on a path two feet wide and 150 feet long. The division developed the system, helped industry make line charge production more efficient and improved the explosive production’s quality and speed.

Additionally, it troubleshoots and helps industry resolve manufacturing problems. Such was the case with production of the 2.75 rocket system, and the Standard Missile’s Mark 104 rocket motor. 

And, the division rapidly manufactures. Its $1 billion-plus infrastructure includes the most diverse energetics manufacturing capabilities in the United States.

Its manufacturing distinguishes it from other government energetics labs. Energetics development extends to manufacturing; those developing energetics have knowledge enabling their production. For example, the division, having developed the formulation, also produced the thermobaric munition within 67 days after the Defense Department stated an urgent need.

The division is the nation’s expert in all things energetics. It has the largest U.S. workforce dedicated to energetics and explosive ordnance disposal. Thus, many seek out this expertise, especially in manufacturing. The Army has relied on it as a backup manufacturer of materials industry could not produce. Industry relies on it to aid their manufacturing, and even produce energetics as a subcontractor. The Department of Energy’s National Laboratories has sought out its support in scaling up their energetic materials for production.

Its manufacturing also has maintained readiness, such as its rapid provision of rockets which deploy ejection seat parachutes after faulty ones caused Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 aircraft to be grounded. It also meets urgent war fighting needs, like rapidly making thermobaric warheads for the shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon, used by Marines in Iraq’s urban combat. And it rapidly produces energetic systems for deploying forces for possible contingencies.

It may be the world’s largest manufacturer of improvised explosive devices, which are used to develop and test countermeasures. The results benefit the defense, homeland security, justice and first responder communities.

The division is pursuing several initiatives that will benefit future energetics manufacturing in industry and defense. It is fabricating microelectromechanical systems and pioneering their use in ordnance. These systems have tiny moving parts and microelectronic circuits that sense and act. They are proliferating across industries — used in cars, phones and medical devices — replacing larger components in systems, at lower costs and with greater reliability, and increasing functions.

The division is also investigating new manufacturing technologies, such as resonant acoustic mixing. Traditional energetics manufacturing techniques use mechanical mixers to thoroughly incorporate and blend all ingredients. Mechanical mixing often requires long periods and limits throughput. This method uses low frequency, high intensity acoustic energy to accomplish this in much shorter timeframes. This technology reduces production labor, can accelerate explosive and propellant cure times and improves safety because no moving parts are involved.

Additionally, the Indian Head facilities are undergoing plant revitalization. Its two nitration facilities were built in 1948 and 1954, enabling production of propellants for missiles and rockets. The two nitration processes are being consolidated in a state-of-the-art agile chemical facility. This modernization will increase capabilities, production flexibility, and reduce environmental footprint. It also can inform the munitions industry’s modernization.

Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head explosive ordnance disposal technology division’s ability to bridge gaps in the defense industrial base will be further enhanced by its recent designation as a Center for Industrial and Technical Excellence. This authority is given to depots and arsenals “that serve as recognized leaders in their core competencies throughout the Department of Defense and in the national technology and industrial base.” This designation allows centers “to enter into public-private cooperative arrangements” related to their core competencies.

Its ability to bridge gaps will become more important in the future. In recent years, most munitions research and development upgraded and modified legacy systems. That cannot continue by itself if U.S. forces are to succeed in future conflicts. There is a growing need to develop and manufacture energetics for more advanced munitions.   
Energetic materials and related items determine munitions capabilities. Manufacturing is their bridge to use. Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head explosive ordnance disposal technology division is expert in energetics development and manufacturing needed for munitions in almost all warfighting domains. Moreover, it enables their rapid production by several means and will be even faster in the future. This makes it central to not just maintaining, but advancing munitions capabilities to meet the growing challenges ahead.

Darrin Krivitsky is head of the energetics manufacturing department at Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head explosive ordnance disposal technology division. Kevin Gessner heads the customer advocate office.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Energy Security

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