Congress Adds Energetics, Critical Chemical Provisions to Defense Bill

By Sean Carberry
A scientist adjusts the flow of argon gas into a chamber used to make energetics materials.

Defense Dept. photo

While the Defense Department continues to field new missiles, rockets and other munitions loaded with precision technologies, the chemicals that provide the thrust and explosive punch have remained the same for decades.

Meanwhile, China has continued to experiment with more powerful energetic materials — chemicals used in explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics — which experts claim has led to China having munitions that can travel longer distances or destroy larger targets.

That’s why the energetics community has been hammering Congress and the Defense Department for years to invest in research, development and production of advanced energetic materials.

Based on language in the House and Senate drafts of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, the message has finally been received.

“What you see in the legislation is also a reflection of the fact that the world marches on, and that exogenous variables weigh heavily on legislators’ and staffers’ minds,” said a senior advisor to the Energetics Technology Center, who spoke on background due to an affiliation with another organization.

“With what was an awareness before of China as a pacing, competitive military threat, even in two years that threat is understood to be … far more highly developed and arguably more urgent than was understood or appreciated two years ago,” the advisor said.

Plus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is putting stress on the U.S. industrial base — which relies heavily on China for energetic chemicals — as manufacturers scramble to crank out munitions, the advisor added.

“So, that’s a driving consideration and what you see in the legislation, specifically the supply chain related aspects of it, which are quite explicit about the importance of isolating U.S. supply network reliance on sources other than those which originated in China,” the advisor said.

Both chambers drafted provisions that align closely with the May 2023 National Energetics Plan issued by the Defense Department’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and start with the creation of a Joint Energetics Transition Office, the head of which would report directly to the deputy secretary of defense. The office would be responsible for evaluating the current regulatory and acquisitions environment and speeding the process of developing, prototyping, demonstrating and transitioning advanced energetic materials.

The office would be tasked with promoting the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning developing energetics strategies across the future years defense program and program objective memorandum processes.

Furthermore, Congress is looking to invest in the industrial base to make the production of current chemicals — particularly RDX and HMX, which have been mainstays since World War II — more resilient and efficient while laying groundwork to produce advanced energetic materials.

Even if some energetics provisions don’t survive what is expected to be a contentious conference process on the Hill, “I think it’s fair to expect enough emphasis and attention on the issue that new pathways for transitioning materials from the lab downstream into weapon systems will unfold with greater haste than has been true for a long time,” the advisor said.

The problem isn’t that U.S. scientists haven’t been able to develop new chemicals with more explosive and energetic properties than RDX and HMX, developed roughly 120 and 90 years ago respectively.

In the 1980s, the United States developed CL-20, which has far greater explosive and propellant properties than the older materials. However, it was deemed too costly and risky to continue working with the powerful chemical. Plus, there was no requirement pulling the material to transition across the valley of death.

Yet China took it on and has developed weapons using CL-20.

In addition to requiring a pilot program to incorporate CL-20 into weapons systems, the House version of the NDAA includes language that could help transition energetics across the finish line by making lethality a munitions requirement.

“The secretary of defense shall ensure that lethality is considered, as appropriate, as a key performance parameter in the analysis of alternatives conducted for purposes of procuring any new munition or modifying an existing munition,” the House draft stated.

Will Durant, president and COO of the Energetics Technology Center, said: “When you look at lethality or range, you can’t just have larger rocket motors every year, you have to really start to address what’s going to be the capabilities that we need, and how can energetics be a significant component?”

The advisor stated that for too long lethality has been an implied characteristic of weapons systems rather than a holistic concept.

“The inclusion in legislation this year of lethality … as a key performance parameter for evaluating systems, it’s easy for a lot of people to overlook, conceivably, how important that could turn out to be, depending on how it’s understood and played out and implemented,” the advisor said.

“Because a holistic understanding underscores a requirement — the need to look at weapon systems effects, both narrowly against targets … but more broadly as consistent with a tactical or operational concept,” the advisor continued.

Experts have long argued that advanced energetic materials could provide a host of tactical advantages: missiles that can travel longer distances, which would allow launchers to stay out of enemy range, or more powerful bombs, which would require fewer air assets and sorties to deliver the same effect as current munitions.

More powerful energetic materials would change the equations behind strike planning in a contested environment, the advisor said, and planners need to understand the consequences of improved lethality. “That can have really extensive implications and ripple implications throughout the way defense acquisition understands how it develops technologies.”

In addition to making lethality a requirement that will drive development of new energetic chemicals, the proposed legislation should spark improvements in the production process, Durant said.

“The community seems to be in alignment for the need to do this, the need to look for new processing — looking at continuous flow like they do in pharmaceuticals,” he said. New processes would improve safety, agility and resiliency, he said.

“There are technologies and performers that are working toward doing things like this,” he continued. “There’s a lot of great ideas, a lot of great projects.”

That includes bringing modeling and simulation into the energetics domain, he said.

“There’s a general consensus on what that modeling and simulation can be — how do you better model the overall weapon effects? Or how do you model a warhead or how do you model solid rocket motors?” he said.

“It’s not an unknown on the path forward. Right now, it’s just what’s the investment priority to push any of those further along?” he added.

Investments in modeling and simulation would reduce costs for qualification testing of energetic materials, he said.

“You have to do less shots, do less explosions,” he continued. “So, understanding that is a reduction of cost in the future, what’s our upfront tolerance for the investment to establish those capabilities that support across all the services or support a particular weapons system?”

The advisor described test and evaluation as “the Mount Everest of the problem,” adding that there are many inside the Defense Department and industrial base who understand the importance of improving the evaluation and qualification process.

“I think the problem is well appreciated and understood and the barriers are well understood,” the advisor continued. “It’s a question of empowering these people to do what they know needs to be done.”

Durant said the energetics community considers the needed advances “to be a billion-dollar problem, not a million-dollar problem.” And there are differences of opinion on the sequence and focus of investments, he added.

“That’s why we do need this coordinating body that can really help take all that information in and recommend the strategic path forward as a sort of governing authority on energetics,” he said.

John Fischer, principal scientist at ETC, said at a May 2022 energetics conference he left the energetics field in 1990, and when he returned a few years ago, the community hadn’t advanced from RDX and HMX.

A year after that conference, he expressed optimism about the path forward for energetic materials.

“I can say, without fear of exaggeration, that the progress that’s been made in the past two years has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he said. “The fact that we’re actually having this conversation is proof that for the first time in my career that energetics and energetics technology is now front and center.”

“We’re talking about it, we’re talking about how much money is going into it,” he continued. “The fact that it’s showing up in authorization language, that is just huge.”
That said, it will take perseverance and patience to move the “herd of elephants” that is the Pentagon in the right direction on energetics, he said.

However, there are many things that can be done now, he said.

“For example, investing in ammunition plants, investing in labs, across academia, government, industry, etc.,” he said. “Because one of the things we want to do is attract workforce. So, having a state-of-the-art laboratory facility … is going to make a very positive impression on people coming out of school who are looking for a job if they see a well-kept, new facility.”

Failing to make those investments could drive away talent and undermine the entire energetics endeavor, he said.

In the long run, success will be measured by looking at the out years of the future years defense program, or FYDP, he said, noting his experience as a former acquisition professional.

“When new lines appear in a program manager’s FYDP that are related to energetics, that’s the win,” he added. “That’s the big win.” ND

Topics: Defense Department, Research and Development, Manufacturing

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