Energetics: Community Warns of China’s Edge Developing Explosive Materials

By Sean Carberry

iStock photo-illustration

This is Part One of a two-part series on the energetics industrial base. June 28: The "graying out" of the energetics work force.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Should a conflict break out tomorrow in the South China Sea over Taiwan, the U.S. military could be at a tactical disadvantage, experts said, because of China’s advances in the use of energetic materials — the chemicals used as propellants, pyrotechnics and explosives.

“Modern combat capability is a function of range, speed, terminal effects, signature management and safety, and it’s fundamentally born from energetics,” Ashley Johnson, technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division, said at the 2022 Breakthrough Energetics Conference held at Purdue University recently. The event was organized by the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

“We built up a huge lead [in energetics] coming out of World War II into the Cold War, and the dogged fight with a determined and capable adversary honed our capability set to a very high level,” he added. “Then we were forced to deal with [the global war on terrorism],” which Johnson said required different tactics and systems that did not rely on advances in energetics.

“It has been a bear market in energetics and munitions for well on 30 years, and urgency is now high based upon the threats,” he said. “Our diminished capacities and capabilities, knowledge, skills, abilities and infrastructure are becoming more and more exposed.”

China and other adversaries are developing weapons using more powerful chemicals. Such energetic materials can propel warheads longer distances or allow ships and planes to carry more munitions because they can be made smaller and lighter yet still pack the same explosive punch, experts at the conference said.

“There are few things that I’ve come across in my studies and wargaming on future warfare and future force development that have as significant a potential impact on operational success as that of energetic materials,” said Tim Barrick, director of wargaming in the Marine Corps University’s Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. “Regaining advantage in energetic materials must be a strategic imperative for the United States,” he added.

The conference was an outcome of a congressionally mandated study released in June 2021 by the Energetics Technology Center, a co-sponsor of the event.

“Energetics and Lethality: The Imperative to Reshape the U.S. Military Kill Chain,” found that energetics development has stagnated in part because the Defense Department has not made a priority of increased explosive power, greater range, smaller form factor or other characteristics.

Hence, the U.S. military has continued to rely on the same critical chemicals it has since the 1940s: RDX and HMX, developed 120 and 70 years ago respectively.

“RDX and HMX together represent the last significant innovations in [energetic materials] to have found widespread use in U.S. systems,” according to the ETC study.

The report noted that researchers at the Naval Surface Weapons Center at China Lake, California, developed a far more powerful material in the 1980s. “The explosive and propellant properties of CL-20 exceed those of RDX and HMX by significant margins,” the report stated.

But CL-20 is not used by the U.S. military today.

John Fischer, lead scientist at the Energetics Technology Center, said he left the energetics field in 1989 because every goal that was laid out for the energetic materials community was not only met, it was exceeded by CL-20.

However, “we could not get it across the finish line,” he said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the urgency for more powerful explosives, the cost of testing and fielding the new material was high and since there was no requirement, the acquisition community had no interest in CL-20, despite it being 40 percent more powerful than HMX explosives in some applications, Fischer said.

China experimented with it and has incorporated CL-20 into weapons systems. Yet, the Defense Department has not heard the alarm, according to participants at the conference.

“The requirements aren’t being passed down,” said Teresa Mayer, one of the authors of the study and executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue.

“As we think about the research-and-development and the [science-and-technology], that ability to transition has been greatly limited because if you don’t have performance drivers that are prioritized above and beyond risk-to-schedule and cost, then we can be doing great science-and-technology, but we’re trying to push rather than pull.”

In contrast, she noted, there is commercial and Defense Department demand for advanced microelectronics. That demand pulls innovation from the research community and transitions new technologies across the “valley of death” that currently consumes innovations in energetics, she said.

“There’s no one place that we can just go put money to fix this,” said Mike Holthe, director of the platforms and weapons technologies office in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.

“We can’t just take money and put it in the [science-and-technology] land and go out and develop new whizbang, great awesome energetics — which we’ve been doing for decades,” he continued. “We have to fundamentally rethink how we approach energetics and how we approach our munitions enterprise” to invigorate the industrial base and inform requirements.

If advanced energetic materials — or the effects those materials deliver — are not baked into requirements, acquisition officials aren’t going to take risks on new materials.

“The operators have to identify what requirements they actually have from an operational perspective,” said Tom Russell, president of Defense Science and Technology Consultants, and former deputy assistant secretary of the Army.

“Right now, the challenge on that [requirement development] is done at the system level, and energetics are a commodity within the system, so you sort of have to devolve a requirement out of that,” he said.

And operators, the people who drive the development of requirements, were absent from the conference, he noted.

“So, it tells me there is a disconnect in the community and that we’re not getting the message to them, and they’re not actually understanding the importance of our message to determine whether this could help them change their requirements … to improve the capabilities,” Russell added.

Part of the problem is how the message is being conveyed, said one Defense Department official.

“Most people in the Pentagon can’t spell energetics,” said Christopher O’Donnell, deputy assistant secretary for platform and weapon portfolio management.

“[We] can barely get people interested in munitions … and as we can see what’s going on in Ukraine … munitions are it,” he said.

“If you go in and say my energetics material is two-times, or four-times or 10-times better than the current energetics, that just goes right past people,” he said. “You really have to put it in the context of the warfighting advantage that I’m going to get if I do these things.”

While panelists debated how to get that message across, there was no argument about the need to reinvigorate the manufacturing base for energetic materials. The supply chain for energetics spans the globe, and often the Pentagon does not know who is supplying the chemicals that contractors and their subcontractors source.

The war in Ukraine has brought supply chain concerns front and center, said Christine Michienzi, chief technology officer for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy.

“We are giving munitions to Ukraine and also having to figure out how we’re going to restock our inventories as well as some of our partner and allied inventories, and do that more quickly,” she said.

The U.S. industrial base does not have the surge capacity to replenish munitions stocks quickly, and one of the constraints is the production of the energetic materials, she said.

“Our demand is small and unsteady,” she said. “Large commercial chemical companies really have no interest in the DoD market. The industry writ large … has really been driven by efficiency, not resiliency or national security.”

As a result, some chemical producers have left the market, which has led to China being the sole source of many critical chemicals used in U.S. weapons. And in cases where materials are produced in the United States, it is often at one facility, creating backlogs and single points of failure.

Like many studies and conferences, it is often easy to identify the problems and recommend solutions, but implementing the fixes is not so easy. The hard work is just beginning, Energetics Technology Council members said in interviews after the conference.

Two primary areas of focus will be developing supply chain diversity and resiliency and building a bridge between the requirements and acquisition personnel and the scientists and innovators.

“If I could do one thing just one thing, I would steal a page out of the playbook of the pharmaceutical industry and move it over into the Department of Defense weapons world,” said Fischer.

The pharmaceutical industry developed a close relationship with the National Institutes of Health and implemented a model called “transitional medicine,” he said.

“What that means is that if there is a promising drug candidate out there, the laboratory gets together with the pharmaceutical industry and the people that potentially manufacture the drug, and they actually start sharing information early on,” he said.

That eliminates the time-consuming linear development and production process and gets all parts of the chain coordinating their pieces early, so when a product is ready for manufacture, the process is ready to go. It’s how COVID-19 vaccines were produced so quickly, he noted.

“So, if we could take that approach into the munitions industry, now we have DoD labs, Department of Energy labs, academia working with industry and whomever is involved. There’s no surprises in it. It comes into a concurrent process where everybody is working towards the same common goal,” Fischer added.

“It would not be easy to implement by any means, but if we could do something like that the opportunity for getting new materials into the system would just fly off the charts,” he said.

One way the Energetics Technology Center is hoping to make progress is through engagement with lawmakers.

“We recognize Congress has to be involved in this,” said Bob Kavetsky, founder and CEO of the ETC. He said the center has been aggressive in its outreach to Congress because it controls the money and because it can help twist arms in the Pentagon.

“Sometimes the DoD is not moving in the direction we think they ought to,” said Kavetsky. “We can use the Hill folks to apply a little bit of appropriate pressure.”

The challenge is creating a sense of urgency to act before there is a crisis like a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

“We’re walking a fine line and not being Chicken Little,” said Kavetsky. “We’re claiming there’s a big problem. What’s that galvanizing thing without being a galvanizing thing?”

Part 2: Energetics Workforce Is Graying Out

Topics: Energy

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