WASHINGTON ― Amid fears about the strained industrial base for energetics, a key part of munitions and other conventional weapons, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Division has forged an agreement with the National Armaments Consortium to accelerate tech breakthroughs over the next six to ten years.
Energetics is a broad category of materials found in rocket and missile motors, ammunition, warheads and fuzing. Because of thin domestic availability of workers and certain chemicals used to make energetics, munition supplies are at risk, according to successive defense industrial base studies.
Under the agreement, the Navy’s hub for developing energetics-related technologies will use a flexible, nontraditional “other transaction authority,” to task consortium members in industry and academia with solving its toughest challenges. Advanced Technology International, which specializes in managing OTA-based collaborations, is also a party to the deal.
The agreement to develop a new Naval Energetic Systems and Technologies Program covers 20 categories, like naval gun systems, warheads, propellants, propulsion systems, ordnance disposal and simulation in all the environments in which the Navy and Marine Corps operate.
Beyond the theoretical, NAC members would do prototyping, engineering development, acquisition and low-rate production for NSWC Indian Head. The contract’s first year is expected to yield 50 prototype projects totaling $50 million, with unspecified growth in the out-years.
“You’re trying to make power matches much quicker than a traditional [acquisition] process might get there,” said NSWC Indian Head Deputy Technical Director Amy O’Donnell. “More so, you’re trying to make the right matches ... And what’s really important is we’ve magnified our access to a community of performers out there in this category.”
NSWC Indian Head is a large, 130-year-old facility with a sweeping mission to research, develop, test, evaluate and produce energetics. At one point, 75% of all explosives deployed in U.S. weapons had been created there.
The NAC is made up of 900 companies, academic institutions, engineers and technologists. Its energetics subsegment includes some small niche entities and some as recognizable as BAE, Northrop Grumman and Pennsylvania State University.
“I can see all kinds of opportunities for prototypes, from ingredients to propellants, explosives ― and including demonstrating them at system-level, so gun systems, missile systems, rocket systems and underwater systems,” said NAC Executive Director Charlie Zisette. “This is really, I think, a groundbreaking move.”
Supply chain management will be another theme.
“It isn’t just about, ‘can I get rounds to go further.’ It’s also about having reliable sources of supply,” Zisette said. “If you look at the precursors we use to make energetic materials, in gun propellants, pyrotechnics, explosives, a lot of that chemical manufacturing has gone overseas. Part of this initiative is about ‘are we going to get back in that game and make sure our sources of supply and stable and robust.’”
The Navy and other services have reportedly seen a boom in the use of OTAs for cybersecurity and information technology, but this may not be the last one for energetics. In the 2020 defense policy bill, Congress directed the Pentagon create a long-term energetics plan to maintain U.S. technological superiority; research and use new technologies, and to maintain a robust industrial base and workforce.
Zisette said the OTA’s flexibility will allow collaboration both to define and answer new requirements. Those requirements will be presented and discussed at periodic Navy-hosted industry days.
“The key is innovation through collaboration,” he said. “It’s going to be more effective and faster, with the best ideas right up front.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.