NAVY formalizes a program to reduce the sensitivity of naval ordnance

Previous • Next

On 5 September 1974, I became Assistant for Explosives in the Ammunition Directorate, Naval Sea Systems Command. CAPT. Jim Edmundson, the Deputy Commander for Ammunition, and my supervisor, CAPT. Ralph Turner, were both familiar with the cook-off tests results from the experiments performed at China Lake with PBXN-107 loaded bombs and ZUNI warheads. They recognized that a funded program to demonstrate and exploit the new technology was necessary.

CAPT. Edmundson had been in charge of the Roseville, CA railroad train explosion investigation. CAPT. Turner had been the Ordnance Officer aboard the USS ORISKANY. They were keenly aware of the typical cook-off reactions experienced with large munitions in fires such as had occurred on the aircraft carriers and on the trains. They recognized the potential for minimizing damage in similar accidents by using cook-off resistant explosives such as had been used in the China Lake demonstration.

One of my first tasks was to seek a Navy program sponsor in the Pentagon to provide funding for a new advanced development program. The program would transition the insensitive explosive technology demonstrated in the laboratory to the pilot plant where large quantities could be produced. Also in the pilot plant, the new formulations could be optimized, tested, and made affordable. Our objectives were to produce sufficient material to conduct large-scale sensitivity and performance tests and to show Navy weapon program managers that these explosives could be manufactured and loaded into munitions at a reasonable cost.

In early September 1975, VAdm. Peterson, Chairman of the Naval Material Command’s CVNX Characteristics Study Group, requested a briefing from NAVSEA on modern explosive technology. The CVNX was a small carrier then in the conceptual stage and was then being considered for construction by the Navy. The Study Group was looking for ways to make more efficient use of the magazine space on the small carriers by reducing the size of the magazine protective walls. I was assigned to make the presentation.

The Study Group had been briefed about commercial binary and slurry explosives and on their potential to make the aircraft carriers more survivable in combat. Binary explosives are made of materials that are essentially inert until mixed together then they become explosive. The concept presented to the Study Group was to store the inert ingredients separately and then mix and load the composition into bombs as needed. There were a number of materials that could be used for that purpose. In general, the explosive mixtures that resulted were not very powerful and were not worth the logistical complications that would accompany their use.

My briefing to the CVNX Study Group was on 22 September 1975. I told them about binary explosives and about the ammonium nitrate slurry explosives that were being used extensively in commercial mining and other industries. At that time, slurry explosives had essentially replaced dynamites as the explosive of choice for all commercial blasting operations.

The data from tests performed at Navy laboratories on available binary and slurry compositions had indicated that none of the on the shelf compositions would meet the performance, storage, and compatibility requirements of the Navy.32 A major high risk program would be necessary to improve the formulations and demonstrate this technology for munition applications. Also, the ability of sailors to mix and load these explosives aboard the small carriers or other ships in all sea states was very questionable.

At that time, the new PBX technology had been demonstrated at the Navy laboratories.33 I told the Study Group that sufficient information was available to predict, with fairly high confidence, that introduction of these new PBX compositions could essentially eliminate the danger of munition detonations due to fires or fragment impacts.34

Annex 1. is a copy of the of the written text I provided to the CVNX Study Group for its report. It synopsized the two parts to my presentation to the Study Group – one part dealing with Plastic Bonded Explosives, PBXs, and the other dealing with binary explosives. To my knowledge, this was the first document that claimed that munitions that were resistant to heat and impact, and could minimize the probability of sympathetic detonation could be produced, and proposed funding for a demonstration program.

The Study Group viewed with interest the data presented and the pictures of the China Lake cook off tests performed to support the Roseville train explosion investigation. After the briefing, VAdm. Peterson asked his aids to make arrangements for me to brief VAdm. Houser, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare (OP 05), on this new explosives technology.

The briefing for VAdm. Houser was on 17 November 1975. After seeing the China Lake and White Oak data and pictures, he asked when we could load out an aircraft carrier with munitions filled with this type of explosive. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, the producibility of these explosives had not been demonstrated and, except for the few large-scale tests performed surreptitiously at China Lake, only the small scale laboratory sensitivity and performance data were available.

On 25 November 1975, I accompanied VAdm. Houser to Norfolk to go aboard the aircraft carrier USS KENNEDY to view the magazine areas. He was interested in exploring the possibility of using less sensitive explosives in munitions to increase the combat survivability of these large vessels. On the return flight to Washington, we discussed what needed to be done to make the new explosive technology available to the Fleet.

VAdm. Houser agreed to be the OPNAV sponsor for a program to manufacture the new PBX formulations in the Navy explosives pilot plant located at the Naval Weapons Station, Yorktown, VA. On 26 November 1975, he sent CAPT. Charles Bolling to my office in NAVSEA to help prepare an issue paper requesting the inauguration of an advanced development (Cat 6.3) program. The issue paper was forwarded from NAVSEA to OP-05 on 12 December 1975.35

By 4 March 1976, CAPT. Bolling had done all the OPNAV paperwork necessary to obtain funding for the program. We met that day to finalize the plans and prepare a briefing for VAdm. Armstrong, the Navy Director of Research, Development, and Acquisition, OP 98.

Before the meeting with VAdm. Armstrong could take place however, VAdm. Houser had retired and CAPT. Bolling had left OPNAV on another assignment. I briefed VAdm. Armstrong on 26 March 1976. He agreed to provide support the program; however, because most of the programs in NAVSEA were under the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Surface Warfare), he assigned OP-03 rather than OP-05 (Air Warfare) as the program sponsor.

CAPT. Jim Toole of OP 03 and CAPT. Jim Kirschke of NAVSEA were instrumental in getting the program started on the right track. OPNAV identified $50,000 of Fiscal Year 1977 funds to start work. By 23 September 1976 a new line with some 20 million dollars had been added to the Navy budget under Program Element 63609N for the Explosives Advanced Development work. This was one of the few new starts in the Navy 1978 Program Objectives Memorandum, POM-78.

On 17 February 1977, I presented the details of this new Navy program at an American Defense Preparedness Association, ADPA, meeting at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA. Representatives from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (a Department of Energy, DOE, contract laboratory) presented information on their plans to use Triaminotrinitrobenzene, TATB, to reduce the sensitivity of nuclear weapons. TATB would replace the HMX formulations then used as the conventional explosive used to trigger the nuclear chain reaction in weapons. TATB had been given the name Insensitive High Explosive, IHE, by the explosives experts at Los Alamos.

The DOE interest in this very insensitive explosive came as a result of U.S. Air Force accidents that occurred, respectively, in Polomares, Spain and Thule, Greenland. In each of these accidents, a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons had crashed and spread radioactive material over a wide area.

The clean-up efforts had been extremely costly to the United States. Thousands of tons of contaminated soil, vegetation, and debris from the accident sites had to be placed in special containers and returned to the United States for disposal as radioactive waste. To avoid such incidents in the future, the requirement for using TATB in all nuclear weapons was made a presidential policy in 1985.

Previous • Next

32TTCP Working Panel 0-2 (Explosives), Proceedings of the Symposium on Military Applications of Commercial Explosives, Defence Research Establishment Valcartier, Courcellette, P.Q., Canada, November 1972.
33Menz, F.L and Edwards, D.J., “New Navy Explosives Reduce Cook-Off Hazards”, NAVSEA Journal, pp 59-62, Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington DC, October 75.
34SEA 992E memo to the Naval Material Command CVNX Study Group dated 22 September 1975.
35CNO Memo 506F/967 dated 12 December 1975.