In the Pentagon race for ammo, legacy explosives can be upgraded too

By Craig Hooper / Forbes / March 29, 2023

If there is an industrial sector that is ripe for innovation, America’s long-neglected munitions industrial base is it. Largely ignored since the mid-1950s, the U.S. energetics industry—the foundation of every explosive device in the military—has withered away, suffering from customer disinterest, an ever-growing regulatory load, and a perception that other countries were better fits for the complex, dirty, and outright dangerous business of munitions design and manufacture.

As U.S. munitions workers toiled, working in backwater, World War II-era manufacturing facilities, China and the rest of the world moved ahead, bringing new energetics technologies and industrial facilities online. And now, as America rushes to meet demand and races to manufacture more legacy munitions, the Pentagon will struggle to bring modern materials and methods into the nation’s munitions development pipeline.

Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the perceived threat from China, America’s munitions industry is finally getting a much-needed refresh. But in the rush to pump out legacy munitions quickly, the Pentagon must balance hurried investments to boost production in long-underfunded manufacturing assets with much-needed updates to the munitions themselves. Energetics—the chemicals that make up the explosives, propellants, and pyrotechnics in modern weapons—are at the heart of it all.

In the U.S., munitions are “boom-and-bust” business. A new investment surge like this won’t come again for decades, and the Pentagon, in the current budget, must get the balance between raw manufacturing and new technology right.

Understanding of the molecular underpinnings of advanced energetics has come a long way since the 1940s—when the powerful Royal Demolition Explosive (RDX) and High Melting Explosive (HMX) explosive formulations were exploited for America’s nuclear weapons programs. Today, new chemical formulations can be crafted and released in ways that offer a myriad of critical advantages to a weaponeer—offering a 40% energy advantage over the Pentagon’s standard set of energetic materials in certain applications.

Take “nano-aluminum” solid composite propellant—one of fifty-seven other critical statements of need that stakeholders in the energetics industrial base identified in 2021 as a critical stepping-stone for a stronger U.S. energetics industry. This single supplement—an easy addition to basic energetics—can, if applied as a propellant, grant a rocket an easy 20% boost in basic performance.

Moving forward with nano-aluminum solid composite propellants should be a no-brainer. The composite propellant offers weapons-makers incredible advantages. As a drop-in replacement for liquid fuels, the new U.S.-sourced material is not only more powerful, but easier to handle. It is stable for more than two decades and is far more highly controllable than legacy energetics.

But getting the Pentagon to make the simple change, reorienting to support an easily updated “open architecture” for energetics, is a blisteringly complex financial, bureaucratic, and engineering challenge. Helicon Chemical, a Florida-based energetics innovator, has been boot-strapping advanced energetics for years. In that time, it demonstrated that their advanced nano aluminum solid composite propellant actually works—but, to do it, they have had to get by on a few million here and there for research efforts or small projects, like powering ejection seat rocket mechanisms, or serving as a prospective fuel source for hypersonic rocket experiments.

The company wants to build on their strong foundation of small successes, but it is unable to scale unless both Congress and the Pentagon work together, allocating funds to build out an energetics-friendly ecosystem and supporting rapid, flexible funding vehicles. That would help innovative small businesses populate that ecosystem, transitioning from research projects into bigger, more established “Programs of Record.”

Big projects to upgrade and update existing weapons systems are missing. It is the sort of work—prepping weapon systems for an open energetics architecture—that is critical if hungry companies like Helicon Chemical can evolve from a small research firm into something bigger and more exciting.

Helicon Chemical’s Chief Executive, Dr. Wes Naylor, put it this way while speaking with defense observer Vago Muradian on his Defense and Aerospace Report podcast. “The idea,” he said, “is to qualify” the additive “so that any commercial manufacturer, commercial partner, or the Air Force itself or any Department of Defense component command, could then specify this as a capability or a component that they want.”

“We aren’t trying to displace rocket engine manufacturers or go after this company or that company,” continued Naylor in a later interview, “we believe we can have an immediate impact across the entire industry—improve everyone’s game by helping them reach farther, go faster and be more lethal.”

That’s easier said than done. The Pentagon won’t do business at a large scale until Helicon Chemical has put in the investments necessary to demonstrate that the laboratory product is scalable and able to be provided in large amounts. And for a small, research-oriented energetics company, that effort is a real financial challenge—as well as an unwelcome distraction from further exploitation of new, even more advanced explosive formulations.

For Pentagon engineers, a “drop-in” energetic, offering a more than 20% boost in acceleration, range, and power, is great news. Those improvements, however, do require updates to targeting computers and other weapons components that risk becoming a time-consuming headache—a burden most production-focused Pentagon program officers do not want. To get binders and other modern energetic enhancements into legacy weapons, at scale, the Pentagon needs to incentivize existing programs to try the new energetics that are available, right now, to enhance critical Pentagon tools.

Open architecture is nothing new. The Defense Department has put an enormous amount of energy and funding towards “opening” the electronic architectures in weapons and weapons systems. Now the Pentagon must do the same for energetics.

Congress is trying to help. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act included language ordering the establishment of a “Joint Energetics Transition Office” that shall “mature, integrate, prototype, and demonstrate novel energetics materials and technologies,” serving as a research support service and a means to sweep aside bureaucratic logjams.

Simply crafting a prototyping laboratory and creating a mechanism to constantly test and push forward new energetic materials is an enormous help for industry, and, in the Pentagon, it offers a good counterpart to program managers.

Program managers, often laser-focused on getting more widgets at a consistently lower price-point, have no incentive to test and try out a game-changer that sits at the heart of a particular weapons system. By removing that pressure and providing a framework for supporting fundamental iterative improvements in legacy weapons, the Pentagon will help innovators and, ideally, offer users big capability improvements as well.

In the current push to buy more ammunition, a healthy Joint Energetics Transition Office will be critical in advancing the innovation needed to sustain today’s massive investment in American munitions infrastructure. It’s one of the few proposals out there that will keep the energetics sector from stagnating when the U.S. starts, once again, to take energetics for granted.

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