An Insensitive Munition is one that will not react violently in an accident situation. Because of the close living quarters and the requirement for storing as many munitions as possible aboard ships, sailors literally live with their munitions. Magazines on warships are not far removed from the living areas. When serious accidents or fires happen, there are no places for people to hide and, in general, leaving the ship is not a good option. An unwanted munition reaction aboard a ship can, among other unpleasant things, ignite fires. Fires must be controlled immediately to avoid violent munition “cook-off” reactions that can kill people, spread fires and seriously impede the ship damage control efforts.
It is not surprising then that of the three military Services, the Navy is the most driven in the pursuit of Insensitive Munitions. In accidents or during enemy actions it is most important that munitions used aboard warships be able to withstand heat, shock, impacts by bullets or fragments, and nearby explosions without reacting in a violent manner. Aircraft carrier flight decks are particularly hazardous because of the large quantities of fuel and ammunition present during flight operations. Also, helicopters operating from other types of surface ships bring fuel and munitions into close proximity and create an environment conducive to munitions cook-off should an accident ignite fuel.
From October 1966 to November 1988, there were four flight deck accidents on U.S. aircraft carrier that involved fires and munition explosions. Two hundred and twenty sailors and naval aviators were killed, and seven hundred injured. Ninety-six planes, each costing more than 20 million dollars, were either destroyed or severely damaged. The ships were forced to leave the operational areas and undergo extensive repairs in shipyards. The material damage alone cost the Navy over 1.3 billion dollars
In addition, between 1965 and 1973, there were sixteen in-bore premature projectile explosions in Navy and Coast Guard large caliber gun barrels and fires and secondary explosions destroyed three ammunition storage areas in Vietnam. In these incidents fifty-nine people were killed, many were injured, and the material damage was extensive
It was understandable then that the Navy hierarchy became concerned with the sensitivity of munitions and supported a program to limit the loss of life, disabling injuries, and material damage that could result from the ordnance accidents or ordnance reacting after being hit by an enemy. Also, when one looks at the history of accidents related to military explosives, it is not surprising that the other U.S. Services and many foreign governments have developed an intense interest in the Insensitive Munitions concept and the technology developed to satisfy the U.S. Navy’s requirement.
Though preventing accidents with explosive ordnance may not always be possible, their disastrous effects can certainly be diminished. There are overwhelming data that support the conclusion that the use of Insensitive Munitions technology can reduce the number of lives lost and limit material damage in accidents. In 1995, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, JROC, supported the concept and as a result, an IM policy statement was included in the revised DOD Acquisition document, DODI 5000.2.
I am one of the few people familiar with the complete history of the U.S. Navy “Insensitive Munitions Program”. I know firsthand how the concept of Insensitive Munitions evolved, progressed, and finally became accepted as an achievable goal by the international ordnance community. This historical reconstruction of the events that drove the program, as documented here, is taken from my files, my notes, and my perspective. Others, particularly at the higher levels in the Navy, have come and gone while the program evolved. Thus their concept of how and when this program started, grew, and matured may be quite different from mine. But then, none of them has had the benefit of continued exposure to the program from its beginning. Copies of all of the unclassified documents referenced in this work are available from my files and can be made available on request.
Are insensitive munitions worth the extra cost? You bet they are. As you will see as you read below, the cost is cheap when one considers the alternative.