Seeking ‘molecule gap’ closure with China, US eyes advanced explosives
A report by the Wall Street Journal shows that US lawmakers and the Pentagon are pushing for increases in local sourcing of raw materials needed for energetics and the expansion of high-end explosives production.
The US has installed new explosive material, CL-20, onto the Switchblade suicide drones it sent to Kiev, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.
CL-20 was first introduced into US weaponry in the 1980s but has been minimally deployed since then.
The material is 40% more powerful compared to previous formulas that aid the explosivity and range of shells.
Cyclonite, octogen, and TNT comprise the larger portion of explosive material used in the Pentagon's arsenal. All of these were developed during the 1940s or prior, the WSJ report stated.
The report said that the conflict between Russia and NATO-backed Ukraine has "exposed myriad deficiencies in the US defense industrial base's ability to surge weapons production."
The Ukrainian crisis has sucked up the funds of Western countries that have provided billions in aid to Kiev in an attempt to extend the conflict.
Easily disrupted supply chains for computer chips, necessary for advanced missile production, have decreased manufacturing outputs during the period of the war while facilities have not been able to keep up with Ukrainian demand for 155mm artillery shells, WSJ underlined.
A previous report by UnHerd, which examined the recent Pentagon leaks, showed that Ukrainian troops are firing 7,700 shells every day, or about one shell every six seconds. This rate of fire has strained Western production facilities as the US military depends on one factory in Louisiana to manufacture black powder that enters into a various array of weapons and explosives.
The US military complex's supply chain is greatly dependent on China to source the raw materials and chemicals that go into explosives production. China's energetics research program has made it difficult for the US to meet the demands of the Ukrainian army. These circumstances led the Pentagon to expand its production of "high-end" explosives like CL-20.
For this shift to be successful, the US has begun to refurbish old factories and rebuild domestic supply chains, which entails boosting the local sourcing of raw materials.
"The whole system is gummed up," said Bob Kavetsky, a Navy weapons scientist, who is the head of Energetics Technology Center.
The use of the improved explosives in the miniature Switchblade drones has allegedly increased the "destructive power and lethality" of the backpack-sized weapon made by AeroVironment. The addition of CL-20 has increased the effectiveness of the drone when deployed against tanks and armored vehicles.
Scaling-up production has been a difficult process for the US, as it only houses one large-scale domestic chemical producer, Northrop Grumman, which has prompted worries among lawmakers about the US' readiness to engage in a conflict with China.
"Energetics are directly related to deterrence," US Representative Mike Gallagher said to WSJ.
Gallagher said he plans on pushing for expanded use of CL-20 as he believes the US "can make a quantum leap in terms of range and destructive power."
Moreover, an expected amendment to the 2024 US defense policy would see the incorporation of the explosive into three missiles or munitions systems of the Pentagon's choosing.
The official said its deployment in Ukraine has pushed for wider use after its production was minimized due to higher costs in comparison to traditional formulas.
This new demand for higher-end explosives has seen domestic producers like Island Pyrochemical Industries, a New York state-based producer, enter the CL-20 market, as it seeks to develop an improved manufacturing process that would reduce the cost of CL-20 to that of Insensitive Munitions eXplosives (IMX).
"There’s not a light switch. Chemical plants don’t like to be turned off and on," said Brian Gathright, who until last year ran production facilities for BAE, which hosts the two largest energetics facilities for the US Army.
The Ukrainian war has uncovered deep problems within the West's production capabilities as Kiev continues to suck up billions worth of ammunition, armored vehicles, and fighter jets.
Read more: Only $6 billion remain of $48 billion US aid package to Kiev: Politico