What is an “Insensitive Munition” and where did the term originate?

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In 1979 Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley, the President of the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey, was concerned about the survivability of the new Navy combat ships. He was particularly concerned about ships built with aluminum superstructures and ordnance magazines located above the water line. He requested and then listened with interest to a NAVSEA presentation on new explosive materials technology. Admiral Bulkeley agreed that the explosives being developed by the Navy laboratories could improve ship survivability in combat. So he wrote5 to Admiral R.L.J. Long, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations to recommend that the Navy initiate a program to exploit this new technology and make “Insensitive Ordnance” available to the Fleet. A copy of his letter is at Annex 2.

Though he is probably unaware of it, Admiral James D. Watkins, who became the Secretary of Energy in the first Bush (Bush 41) administration, coined the name “Insensitive Munitions”. This is the way it came about. After he relieved Adm. Long as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Watkins signed a Navy Operational Requirement document calling for the development and exploitation of “Insensitive High Explosives”6. The goal was to make “Insensitive Ordnance”, a term coined by VAdm. Bulkeley, available to the Fleet. Shortly after he signed the Operational Requirement, he left the Pentagon on another assignment.

Adm. Watkins returned to the Pentagon as the Chief of Naval Operations in 1983 and, one day, he inquired about the status of the “Insensitive Munitions Program. He asked this question either at, or just after, a Chief of Naval Operations Executive Board (CEB) briefing on surface ship survivability. In this briefing, munitions sensitivity was identified as a principal cause of ship vulnerability in combat. The sympathetic detonation of munitions had often resulted in “cheap ship kills” in combat and in a large amount of damage to ships in accidents

The details will come later but, in brief, this is what followed Adm. Watkin’s question. On 3 May 1983, CAPT. Jack Whitely in the Pentagon called CAPT. Bill Cadow, my Division Director in NAVSEA, to ask what he knew about an “Insensitive Munitions” program initiated earlier by Adm. Watkins. I was on travel when the question was asked but when I returned, the question was put to me. This led to my briefing VAdm. Nyquist on the background and status of the Explosives Advanced Development (EAD) program that, at that time, was being sponsored by his office.

That program had been established in response to the recommendation made to Adm. Long and Adm. Watkins (his relief) by VAdm. Bulkeley. However, the Navy had not funded an “Insensitive Munitions program” as had been recommended. Initially, the Explosives Advanced Development program was structured to respond to Vadm. Bulkeley’s recommendation but by the time it came to fruition, a number of bureaucratic “rice bowl” issues had arisen. As a result, OPNAV had directed that the work be limited to high explosives and gun propellants since these were the materials of concern. When VAdm. Nyquist heard this , his response was essentially — “Well, we have an Insensitive Munitions program now”.

The Explosives Advanced Development program was renamed the Insensitive Munitions Advanced Development program and the focus was modified to consider the complete munition rather than only the high explosive components. The small group of people who worked on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Board briefing on Insensitive Munitions wrestled with the definition of an “Insensitive Munition” and finally after many modifications, LCdr. John Kelly of OP 354, Dr. Lloyd Smith of the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division, China Lake, CA, Mr. Jack Turner of JJH, Incorporated (then with NKF Engineering, Inc.), and I proposed the following definition:7

“Insensitive Munitions are those that reliably fulfill their performance, readiness, and operational requirements on demand, but are designed to minimize the violence of a reaction and subsequent collateral damage when subjected to unplanned heat, shock, fragment or bullet impact, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or other unplanned stimuli.”

So, as a result of Adm. Bulkeley’s recommendation to make insensitive ordnance available to the Fleet, and some follow-on actions taken by other Naval officers, what began as the U.S. Navy initiative to improve ship survivability evolved. It has now grown into an internationally recognized goal applicable to all weapon platforms used by the land, air, and sea forces. But to get the whole picture, we have to go back to the beginning.

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5Bulkeley, John D. VAdm. USN(Ret.), President, Navy Board and Inspection and Survey Confidential letter to Admiral R.L.J. Long, Vice Chief of Naval Operations dated 27 February 1979
6CNO Memo Ser: 987/239915 dated 22 August 1979 with enclosed OR No. S-0363-SL Titled “Operational Requirement (OR) Insensitive High Explosives”.
7CNO Executive Board (CEB) on Insensitive Munitions briefing book dated 29 March 1984.