At war with China, the United States risks being ‘beaten over the head’ with its own explosives technology
Pentagon efforts to develop new missile propellants and explosives waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Chinese have made great strides.
By Jeremy BogaiskyForbes Staff
In1987, US Navy researchers have discovered a new explosive with formidable capabilities. Named China Lake Compound No. 20 after the base in Southern California where it was developed, it offered up to 40 percent greater penetrating power and propellant range than major U.S. Army explosives. which were first produced during World War II.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the Pentagon’s urgency evaporated. So did the costly task of perfecting the CL-20 and designing weapons to use it.
China, however, saw the potential. The country has invested heavily in the development of long-range missiles with the aim of forcing US warships and non-stealth aircraft like tankers to operate remotely if Chinese forces invade Taiwan. Some of these weapons are believed to be powered by a version of the CL-20, which China first fielded in 2011 and is now producing on a large scale.
“This is a case where we could potentially be beaten over the head with our own technology,” said Bob Kavetsky, head of the Energetic Technology Center, a nonprofit research group that works for the government. Forbes.
Kavetsky and other experts in energy, the niche field of blowing things up, have been warning for years that the United States, long the world leader, has fallen dangerously behind China. Last year, the Pentagon outlined a plan to spend $16 billion over 15 years to modernize and expand its aging network of munitions factories, but Kavetsky warns that this does not include developing advanced manufacturing capabilities. needed to mass-produce new explosives like the CL-20.
To make matters worse, the United States depends on China as the sole source for about half a dozen chemical ingredients in explosives and propellants, and other countries of concern for another dozen. Supporters hope lawmakers and the Pentagon will be spurred into action by the fight to replenish the ammunition supplied to Ukraine and growing concerns over China’s preparations to seize Taiwan by force.
If Washington intervenes in a fight on Chinese territory, US forces will face more Chinese missiles, some with better range and power. This is only partly thanks to the CL-20 – the Chinese have also developed technology to make propellants burn more efficiently and have built larger missiles than US forces can bring into battle by air or sea.
“We cannot build enough ships and planes to carry the number of missiles needed to reverse the firepower imbalance we have inside the first island chain,” Major- retired Gen. Bill Hix, who served as the Army’s director of strategy after commanding forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was a consultant for the Energy Technology Center.
“The only solution is new energetic materials,” he said. This would allow the United States to produce smaller missiles with the same power, so more can be carried by warplanes and ships, as well as enable weapons that can fire farther and have more power.
Ilast month, Kavetsky briefed members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said Forbes that closing the explosives gap will be “an important area of emphasis” in this year’s defense spending bill.
Wittman said he supports the idea of retrofitting existing missiles with CL-20s and creating a high-level office dedicated to energy under the Secretary of Defense. While Pentagon policymakers are aware of the issues, “I don’t think they see a sense of urgency in it,” Wittman said. “We’re going to instill a sense of urgency in them.”
Chinese scientists account for about three-quarters of research published in energy and related fields over the past five years, nearly seven times more than American researchers, according to analyzes by the Hudson Institute and the Georgetown University. They are working on materials that have improved performance over the CL-20, Kavetsky said.
In the United States, energy development has stalled as the Pentagon has focused on developing more precise weapons to increase lethality rather than explosive power, according to a 2021 Energetics Technology Center report commissioned by the Pentagon in response to a congressional mandate. US spending on munitions R&D fell 45% between 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and 9/11. Since then, amid low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan against lightly armed opponents, the ammunition budget has often been cut to fund the development of large platforms like ships and aircraft. Most of America’s energetics work was channeled through a 2001 congressional mandate to make explosives less sensitive so they wouldn’t go off accidentally.
Given the dangers and limited civilian applications, military explosives were almost entirely developed and manufactured at US government facilities. Although military researchers have developed new explosives and propellants over the past few decades, none have been put into mass production. (Small quantities of CL-20 were made for use in detonators, but at a cost of over $1,000 a pound.) level of change.
“There’s no one who wakes up in the morning in DoD thinking only about energetics,” Kavetsky said.
While the government has been aware of the problems for years — in 2012 the DoD created a group called the Critical Energy Task Force to reduce the number of single points of failure in the explosives supply chain — the Observers say they have been overshadowed by other priorities.
But now concerns are growing in Washington over the adequacy of US arms stockpiles after donating large amounts of missiles, artillery shells and other ammunition to Ukraine, along with research suggesting that the US military could out of key precision ammo in a week of the start of a high-intensity conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
NOTat the beginning of all American explosives are produced in a single army-owned factory in Holston, Tennessee, which dates back to World War II and is run by UK-based defense contractor BAE Systems (2022 revenue: 25, $5 billion). Production processes are typically that old, Kavetsky said, with explosives prepared in 400-gallon vats that look like cake mixers. Many advanced energetic materials cannot be made this way, including CL-20, which he says is synthesized in smaller quantities in chemical reactors.
It would be possible to make 20,000 pounds of CL-20 a year with current amounts of precursor chemicals, Kavetsky said, but large-scale use would require 2 million pounds a year, which he says could take three to five years. “If the DoD says we want large quantities,” he said, “industry will respond.”
“If the DoD says we want large quantities, industry will respond.”
In its 2021 report, ETC recommended that the Department of Defense create a joint office to oversee the disparate energy efforts of the various services and empower it to introduce new energy materials into weapons systems. He also called on the DoD to privatize production and prime the pump for industry to develop new energy materials by awarding $50 million a year in prototyping contracts for five years.
Other recommendations include the creation of small, pilot-scale production facilities modeled on pharmaceutical factories that would have the ability to switch between manufacturing a number of different chemical precursors for explosives depending on demand. , and take more urgent action for onshore production of critical chemicals or source from allies, develop multiple sources of each, and expand production.
The Pentagon is exploring other ways to close the firepower gap with China, such as finding ways to make current boosters more efficient, which would extend missile range. He is also developing lasers and microwave weapons that can zap incoming missiles from the sky, which promise to be cheaper and inexhaustible as long as they have a source of electricity.
Hix said he doubts these promising technologies will be ready for prime time this decade, but the United States could ramp up its firepower fairly quickly with better explosives and propellants.
“A concerted effort on [explosives] is possible,” he said. “But we have to invest in it.”