How the US can reclaim leadership in advanced energetic materials

How the US can reclaim leadership in advanced energetic materials

The past 18 months have seen unprecedented interest among senior defense officials and Congress in the state of the nation’s defense energetics enterprise. Energetic materials — substances or mixtures that release energy rapidly — are used in military applications for explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics to generate the high-energy effects essential for weapon systems.

The legislators’ interest is understandable in view of the results of three major studies by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the Energetics Technology Center, and the Hudson Institute.

All three decried the sclerotic state of the organizations and processes that develop, test, qualify and integrate new explosives and propellants into defense systems. All three called for a seismic reconsideration of the management and structure of the entire domain. And all three emphasized the need for urgency.

As the ETC study put it, “senior leaders must act immediately and decisively if conventional deterrence of the nation’s competitors is to succeed.”

Attentive members of Congress took heed. The fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act contains provisions intended to begin revitalizing the entire value chain of energetic materials, from basic research to incorporation in weapons systems. At the forefront is the creation of a Joint Energetics Transition Office in Subtitle C, Section 241 of the NDAA, empowered to unclog the transition pipeline and knit together the dozens of elements that comprise the energetics ecosystem.

If properly managed, it could do much to restore what was once American leadership in the materials that most define the lethality and effectiveness of weapons systems.

The FY24 NDAA also authorized a rapid prototype demonstration program for CL-20, one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosive in the world. In 1987, Arnold Nielson, a chemist at the U.S. Navy’s China Lake facility, invented the new molecule in the hope of giving U.S. weapons an advantage against the country’s enemies during the Cold War.

“This is the most significant ingredient to be developed in the past 50 years because it has high performance and has applications for missile propulsion and warheads,” announced Thom Boggs, the head of China Lake’s engineering sciences division at the time. Boggs predicted that CL-20 would begin to show up in propellants and explosives in three to four years.

That was 1993. After 30 years, CL-20 barely features in U.S. weapons systems. The end of the Cold War dampened a willingness to tackle the steep technical challenges of making new energetic materials operational.

To make matters worse, two decades of unconventional warfare further reduced any urgency to develop more lethal and effective weapons. Throughout that period, however, researchers in China and Russia especially have made alarming strides in the development and manufacture of CL-20 and other, even more effective energetic materials.

These developments underscore a significant shift in global military capabilities. Advancements in energetic materials by strategic competitors not only threaten to eclipse the edge historically enjoyed by U.S. forces but pose a challenge to the United States’ ability to maintain a credible defense posture and deterrence capabilities.

Advanced energetic materials can increase the destructive power of warheads. This translates into the ability to neutralize targets more effectively with fewer munitions, allowing for more efficient use of them in combat scenarios. By providing a higher energy output, advanced energetic materials in solid-rocket motors can propel munitions over longer distances. An extended range enables forces to engage targets from safer distances, reducing the risk to personnel and assets while expanding the scope of potential targets.

The incorporation of advanced materials into munitions could enable our strategic competitors to field weapons systems potentially superior in range, lethality and effectiveness.

The accelerated pace of energetic materials research by China and Russia points to a critical imperative for the United States to monitor and respond to our strategic competitors’ advancements. Recent announcements from Chinese scientists about breakthroughs in manufacturing efficiency, alongside Russian efforts to make even more potent and stable energetic materials, illustrate a significant escalation in their capabilities.

These advancements suggest that these nations are not only matching but potentially exceeding U.S. capabilities in the development of advanced military systems. Their rapid innovation in this key area points to an urgent need for the U.S. defense acquisition processes to adapt and accelerate. Keeping pace with these innovations is vital for maintaining the United States’ competitive edge and ensuring our military’s effectiveness.

The strategic and tactical advantages afforded by these materials are too fundamental to ignore. As the global security environment becomes increasingly competitive, the U.S. must strive to reassert its leadership in the development and application of advanced energetic materials. The effectiveness of U.S. forces — and by extension the nation’s ability to deter and, if necessary, prevail over future adversaries — depends on it.

The establishment of the Joint Energetics Transition Office, as authorized by the FY24 NDAA, represents merely the starting point. The campaign requires a coordinated effort across the entire defense ecosystem, encompassing research institutions, the defense industry, the requirements process, program offices, service acquisition leadership and military end users.

Furthermore, the rapid prototype demonstration program for CL-20 underlines the need to not only catch up with the advancements made by competitors but leapfrog to the next generation of energetic materials. The security and superiority of U.S. military forces hinge on leading the charge, ensuring that America remains prepared to meet and surpass the challenges posed by global strategic rivals.

Robert Kavetsky is the CEO of the Energetics Technology Center.

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