Air Force Setting Sights on New High-Tech Munitions

By Jon Harper

Photo: Air Force

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The Air Force Research Laboratory aims to develop a variety of new technologies to enhance the survivability and effectiveness of munitions, one of the lab’s top scientists said May 8.

Adversaries have acquired anti-access capabilities that put U.S. military systems at risk, noted David Lambert, chief scientist at AFRL’s munitions directorate.

“We are not able to get up close and personal anymore like we have been in the past 20 years,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Armament Systems Forum in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Our ability to get advanced platforms in there may be extremity limited, so we might have to do it through … getting very creative.”

In the future, missiles will need to be able to operate in GPS-denied environments, he noted. To tackle that problem, AFRL is looking at alternative navigation methods including ones that use visual aids or magnetic fields. Munitions that can operate autonomously in a networked fashion are a possible solution, especially for missions that would require them to travel over thousands of miles of ocean, he added.

The lab is also working on hypersonic weapons that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or higher, and would be much more capable of penetrating enemy air defense systems. The technology is the top priority of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin.

“We’ve got a $1 billion a year as a country going into that,” Lambert said. “We’ve got some very tight timelines to get some demonstrations out.

“I feel really confident [about] where we’re headed and the progress that we’ve made,” he added. “I would really hate to be the enemy.”

Additive manufacturing of energetic materials is another area of interest for the lab. 3D printing could improve munitions by enhancing their compositional complexity and structural control, according to Lambert’s slide presentation.

“If you’re hypersonic, you’re vibrating [and] you’re in high temperature,” he said. “If you’re a hard target penetrator… you’re going through 50 kilo-Gs of deceleration when you’re entering concrete walls.”

Additive manufacturing enables scientists to custom design features in energetics, he noted. “We’re looking at some very creative structures for survivability as well as performance to do some things with energetics that we weren’t able to do traditionally.”

AFRL seeks distributed embedded fuzing systems that physically separate key fuzing functions. Such an architecture would increase munitions’ survivability against ground targets, and provide a level of control of initiation points in weapons that was not previously available, according to Lambert’s slide presentation.

The lab’s vision for air-to-surface weapons is to replace single, large, fixed-output munitions with smaller, aggregated munitions that could deliver more precise effects and reduce collateral damage while operating in contested environments, Lambert said.

Higher efficiency warheads could enable aircraft such as the stealthy F-35 joint strike fighter to carry more weapons without adding weight or sacrificing firepower, he noted.

Developing the appropriate reactive materials could maximize weapons effectiveness against a range of targets with smaller munitions by replacing subcomponents with higher energy density materials, according to his slides. That is “the Holy Grail,” Lambert said. “We have made progress [but] we have not solved it,” he added.

Air Force scientists envision “selectable effects warheads” that would enable a pilot or crew member to tailor the destructive power of weapons just the before they are dropped. That could enable U.S. forces to minimize collateral damage, Lambert said.

“Special forces want to be able to go downtown and pick your target without taking out the neighborhood,” he said.

Warfighters may someday have post-launch control of munitions in case they need to be redirected to avoid friendly fire accidents or other undesired outcomes, Lambert noted.


Topics: Air Force News, Air Power, Armaments

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