Department of Energy and Department of Defense Insensitive High Explosives and Propellants (IHEP) study

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In 1955 and 1956, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, White Oak laboratory investigated triaminotrinitrobenzene (TATB) for use in conventional weapons. TATB was made in pilot plant quantities and its explosive properties were tested at the Navy White Oak laboratory. TATB is a temperature resistant explosive that is stable at temperatures that exceeded 260°C. It is not as powerful as TNT. TATB is difficult to load because it has to be pressed and then machined to shape. Because of its low energy and its the undesirable loading complexity, TATB was not accepted for use as a main charge in Navy warheads.

Testing at the White Oak laboratory had demonstrated that TATB was a very insensitive high explosive. This property interested the DOE scientists involved in a program to replace the sensitive HMX formulations then used as the conventional explosive charge in nuclear weapons. The low energy and the processing complexity did not concern the DOE scientists. The energy content of the conventional explosive used to trigger the device was more than offset by the nuclear event. Also the conventional charge as used in strategic weapons was pressed and machined to shape. Thus, the loading complexity was not a problem in production.

In early 1978, Dr. Harold Agnew, the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, contacted Dr. Harold Brown, the Secretary of Defense, and proposed a joint DOD-DOE effort to study the use of the TATB as the main charge in conventional weapons. Dr. Ruth Davis, the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, DDR&E, agreed with the proposal and decided to fund the effort. The three Services were directed to provide the money for the DOD-DOE Insensitive High Explosives and Propellants (IHEP) study.

It was during this period that CAPT. Bob Ripley, SEA-06J, CAPT. Fred Howe, OP-354, CAPT. Marshall Willenbucher of OP-98, Mr. Max Stosz of NSWC, White Oak, MD on detail to OP-354, RAdm. C. J. Rorie, SEA-06, and I worked to have the funds for the Navy Explosives Advanced Development program restored in the budget. There is no doubt that the DOD-DOE IHEP study was of substantial help to us in having the funds restored. It provided us with the opportunity to present, once again, the Navy explosives technology achievements at the highest DOD and Navy levels.

We focused our efforts to save the Navy programs, then perceived to be threatened by the National Laboratories, on a series of briefings. With invaluable help from Max Stosz, on 14 August 1978, I presented briefings to RAdm. Keenan, OP-55, and RAdm. Smith, OP-05E, on 16 August to VAdm. Bryan,39 the Commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, on 17 August to VAdm. Whittle, the Chief of Naval Material, on 28 August, to RAdm. Ward, OP-35, on 30 August, to Dr. Ruth Davis, DDR&E, and finally, on 24 October 1978 to Dr. Jacobs, of the Office of the Under Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development. As the result of these briefings, in late October 1978, $200,000 was restored to the Explosives Advanced Development program budget line and $1.5 million was budgeted for the fiscal year 1979 efforts.

The DOD-DOE IHEP study report40 was issued in March 1979. The study concluded that the Navy PBX studies and the Army LOVA work were on course, and these materials offered weapon designers a good trade-off between sensitivity and performance. The study group concluded that:

“A castable explosive with the insensitivity of TATB or NQ {nitroguanidine} is not available…but cast cure RDX formulations will enhance safety through their mild burning response in an enveloping fire and reduced vulnerability to fragment impact.”

The study report hardly mentioned TATB, the explosive that was the original basis for the DOE proposed IHEP study which cost the DOD well over two million dollars.

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39SEA-64E Memorandum to SEA-00/09 via SEA-64 & SEA-06, 64E/RLB Ser. 44 dated 23 April 1979.
40USDR&E 79-653A, DoD-DoE Study of Insensitive High Explosives and Propellants, March 1979.