Pentagon Needs to Start An “Energetics Renaissance”

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February 25, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: February 25 on

The final comment in a June 2018 National Defense article, “Pentagon Set to Boost Spending on High-Tech Armaments,” was perhaps the most telling: “If anybody tells you that the future is nothing but lasers on the battlefield … they are not very well informed. There is a place for directed energy and there is a place for missiles and there is a place for guns.”

This insightful comment was made by Michael Holthe, the Army’s director for lethality in the office of the deputy secretary of the Army for research and technology.

The comment is remarkably similar to statements by Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering: “I would urge us not to think that one size fits all. … I would urge us to keep a lot of arrows in our quiver as we go forward.”

As we return to great power competition, we need to recognize that while we have been fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere for most of the past two decades, we have not only depleted our weapons stockpiles, we have lost some of the advantages in weapons overmatch compared to near-peer or peer competitors. We need to refill our quivers with the weapons we need to win the next war, not the last.

While the United States has focused science-and-technology development investments on near-term solutions for ongoing fights and far-term advancements such as directed energy weapons, adversaries have caught up to — and in some cases surpassed — existing chemical energetics-driven weapons capabilities.

The opening of the same National Defense article states: “The U.S. military is looking to enhance the lethality of its weapons as it prepares for high-end warfare against advanced adversaries. A wide range of modernization needs includes everything from small arms all the way up to long-range precision missiles.”

That summary describes the need; what the article does not address is the source of most new conventional munitions S&T development. It is not industry.

The simple fact is that for advanced energetics technologies such as propellants; rocket and missile motors, engines and fuels; explosives; reactive materials; and energetic material systems such as fuzes and primers, there is little or no commercial market. So the expectation that industry will allocate adequate internal research-and-development funding to create the advanced energetics needed to significantly increase conventional munitions’ performance is a false hope.

All the military branches maintain government energetics enterprise organizations and facilities to develop the science and technology needed to improve munitions and then transition them to industry for production. For example, the Navy’s energetics enterprise includes the Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division at Indian Head, Maryland, and the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, California. Together, they provide most of the development for naval energetics in all warfighting domains.