Pentagon Needs to Start An ‘Energetics Renaissance’

By Ashley Johnson

Photo: Navy

Sometimes, as T.S. Eliot said, “the end is the beginning.”

The final comment in a June 2018 National Defense article, “Pentagon Set to Boost Spending on High-Tech Armaments,” was perhaps the most telling: “If anybody tells you that the future is nothing but lasers on the battlefield … they are not very well informed. There is a place for directed energy and there is a place for missiles and there is a place for guns.”

This insightful comment was made by Michael Holthe, the Army’s director for lethality in the office of the deputy secretary of the Army for research and technology.

The comment is remarkably similar to statements by Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering: “I would urge us not to think that one size fits all. … I would urge us to keep a lot of arrows in our quiver as we go forward.”

As we return to great power competition, we need to recognize that while we have been fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere for most of the past two decades, we have not only depleted our weapons stockpiles, we have lost some of the advantages in weapons overmatch compared to near-peer or peer competitors. We need to refill our quivers with the weapons we need to win the next war, not the last.

While the United States has focused science-and-technology development investments on near-term solutions for ongoing fights and far-term advancements such as directed energy weapons, adversaries have caught up to — and in some cases surpassed — existing chemical energetics-driven weapons capabilities.

The opening of the same National Defense article states: “The U.S. military is looking to enhance the lethality of its weapons as it prepares for high-end warfare against advanced adversaries. A wide range of modernization needs includes everything from small arms all the way up to long-range precision missiles.”

That summary describes the need; what the article does not address is the source of most new conventional munitions S&T development. It is not industry.

The simple fact is that for advanced energetics technologies such as propellants; rocket and missile motors, engines and fuels; explosives; reactive materials; and energetic material systems such as fuzes and primers, there is little or no commercial market. So the expectation that industry will allocate adequate internal research-and-development funding to create the advanced energetics needed to significantly increase conventional munitions’ performance is a false hope.

All the military branches maintain government energetics enterprise organizations and facilities to develop the science and technology needed to improve munitions and then transition them to industry for production. For example, the Navy’s energetics enterprise includes the Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division at Indian Head, Maryland, and the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, California. Together, they provide most of the development for naval energetics in all warfighting domains.

The problem is these organizations have been underfunded since the early 2000s, when the Navy shifted focus to the development of advanced electrically-powered weapons such as the electromagnetic railgun and laser weapons system. At that time, the U.S. military enjoyed overmatch in conventional weapons almost across the board. Now, after almost two decades of significant investment in conventional energetics by China and Russia, we have lost this overmatch, and in some areas adversaries’ weapons outperform ours. Meanwhile, the workforce and infrastructure at both these Navy organizations have atrophied due to the lack of investment.

So when military research-and-development leaders call for advancements, in this case during a defense armament forum, such as, “for everybody in this room that’s involved in the lethality business, whether you’re guns, whether you’re missiles, whether you’re directed energy … I think it’s fair to say all of you are the right people at the right time to come together to provide new capabilities,” we all need to recognize that in the area of energetics, the “right people” are not all in industry, particularly for science and technology.
Interestingly, the examples of advancements being provided by industry were all small arms or advanced materials such as improving barrel life, suppressing signatures or reducing recoil. These advancements are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

Defense officials are calling for the capability advancements U.S. forces need to enable the National Defense Strategy’s vision of a more lethal joint force. Those advancements include extended range, more lethal warheads, specialized weapons such as drone-defeat munitions, and other advanced technologies. Energetics can’t solve all the problems, but investment in energetics needs to be part of the solution.

It is not too late to regain an edge, and the cost of so doing is relatively small compared to the investment levels discussed in the article that explained, “the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress included $16.2 billion for munitions, about $1.9 billion above the president’s budget request. In fiscal year 2019, the Defense Department plans to spend more than $20 billion on the technology.”

Recently, the Navy’s energetics subject matter experts conducted a yearlong study to address what would be needed to enable an energetics renaissance to reestablish and maintain the edge in naval energetics, and developed a 30-year plan for such a renaissance in conventional energetics. They concluded it is possible to do so, and the result would include substantial gains in range, speed and lethality of conventional energetics weapons — in terms of multiples, not marginal percentage improvements.

They also estimated the investment required to regain our edge as a steady-state of $60 million per year, which would be divided between the two energetics warfare centers, basic research in academia and targeted investments in the energetics industry. This represents less than one percent of the $16 billion to $20 billion planned — in short, a small part of the overall investment in armaments.

Furthermore, these energetics experts estimated this modest annual investment would provide advances in energetics technologies and modernize the tools they need such as models and simulations to predict future performance, or advanced test and evaluation techniques to develop new science and technology and then transition it to industry for incorporation into the production of advanced weapons.

So while recognizing the “energetics renaissance” only addresses the Navy, even if the Army and Air Force made similar increases in investments, the total pales next to the overall armaments funding and some of the naval investments. Improvements in naval gun capabilities would be easily transferable to other services, such as Army and Marine Corps artillery capabilities. It simply makes sense to leverage the potential capability improvements offered by a return to reasonable investment in conventional energetics.

Consider the impact of advanced versions of conventional weapons that fit and function within current weapons systems. The naval energetics experts accepted the challenge of developing improved versions of weapons for existing Navy weapons platforms, including vertical launch system missile tubes and missile form factors, current torpedo tubes and torpedoes, existing aircraft and naval guns. In short, once developed and tested, these munitions could immediately be used on Navy ships, submarines and aircraft without any modifications.

Being able to do this while doubling, or more, the range, speed and/or lethality of these weapons provides a capability hedge while waiting for the completion — and then installation — of advanced naval weapons such as the railgun and the laser weapon.

A recent Congressional Research Service report estimated that while the Navy has made considerable progress in these two advanced weapons, they are not yet ready and it will likely take years to complete the development. Once development is complete, given ship maintenance cycles, it could be decades before these weapons are installed or back-fitted on all Navy combatant ships.

Investment in conventional energetics will enable the Navy to regain advantages in the near term and also enable a graceful transition to more advanced weapons once they are completed and become widely available to warfighters.

The bottom line is that the United States won the Cold War with balanced capabilities in nuclear, conventional and precision weapons. It will need balanced capabilities to enable the more lethal joint force called for in our National Defense Strategy. Modest increases in conventional energetics development can provide the advances in capabilities we need to complement other advanced technology areas such as directed energy weapons.

Conventional energetics will continue to be critical components of our nation’s arsenal for decades. It is possible to improve our conventional energetics-enabled capabilities, but we must revitalize the energetics enterprise — begin the energetics renaissance — to do so.

Ashley G. Johnson is the technical director at Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head’s explosive ordnance disposal technology division.

Topics: Munitions Technology, Defense Department

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