Navy expanding efforts to push the frontiers of weapons energetics

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The Navy is energetically pursuing the field of energetics – an emerging type of weapons that don’t necessarily use gunpowder but they might. Now there’s a new program called Naval Energetic Systems and Technologies (NEST). It’s a collaboration among the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head division; Advanced Technology International, and the National Armaments Consortium. The Consortium’s Executive Director Charlie Zisette joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for the details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Zisette, good to have you back.

Charlie Zisette: Tom, it is good to be back.

Tom Temin: So energetics – I thought that that referred to the high-speed warheads that are launched with just magnetics and so forth, that go Mach7 and blow up anything they touch. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?

Charlie Zisette: Well, you’re right, it sure is. Energetic materials is used in essentially all weapon systems, whether it’s for putting energy on target, like small arms, medium caliber, large caliber ammunition, rockets, missiles, bombs, warheads, pyrotechnics, even the ejection seat cartridges that launch our pilots to safety are using energetic materials. It’s in all that we do.

Tom Temin: So why is the Navy doing this as a separate program? Isn’t that central to everything the Navy has been doing for centuries?

Charlie Zisette: Well exactly, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Mr. Ashley Johnson, who is the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head division technical director. He understands the need to ensure that we maintain our strategic advantage. And a lot of times people just take energetics for granted. And they don’t think about the challenges and synthesizing energetic molecules to scaling them up to getting them to production – simple things like single-point failures or obsolescence. And the challenges of making energetics as you can imagine, is that – making explosives. And so it does take a rare type of scientist, engineers, process engineers, chemical engineers, and that is somewhat of a dying art in our country. And we need to revive that. I think his vision coupled with our national armaments consortium vision, is to unite not just the naval capability, but the entire nation centered around ensuring we’ve got a source of supply and advancing the state of the art to take care of some of the emerging threats we’re seeing in our peer competitors.

Tom Temin: And again, you do hear a lot in the news often about these high speed projectiles that don’t use powder. But from what you’re saying there’s still a lot of research and development life left in conventional types of explosives in ordinance. Is that true?

Charlie Zisette: It is absolutely true and don’t discount the need for energetics even in hypervelocity and hypersonics. All of them have to get launched, and they’re launched with energetic materials. They’re also, their guidance is also, usually their terminal effects can have energetic materials. So even when we think of electric guns, or hypersonics or hypervelocity it’s still using energetic materials.

Tom Temin: Well tell us more about this NEST program. What’s going on here and what does each party bring to it?

Charlie Zisette: The NEST is really going to be, I think, the cornerstone for our national energetics plan. And what it does is it unites the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head with the entire industrial base of the National Armaments Consortium, which is really the entire industrial base of all energetic material developers, scalers and – in production. And so this is now going to put into one place the technical capability of our country and focus it to solve really hard challenges. Though, the way this works is using an other transaction authority. And so we have essentially a six-to-10-year agreement between the National Armaments Consortium, our consortium management firm ATI, and the Navy to really establish these public-private partnerships and prototyping capabilities that both the government labs have as well as the industrial labs. And to bring them together through collaboration.

Tom Temin: And what about specific projects? How will those be identified? Because you’ve described a very wide field of endeavor, process manufacturing, research and development materials. I guess even supply chain is a big part of this. Plus some of these new exotic technologies. So how will you identify projects and how will those get kind of doled out among members to work on?

Charlie Zisette: It all starts with the requirements generation. And that is obviously the responsibility of the warfighter and the development laboratories to set the priorities. Because as you say, you could try and take on the world and, and that would just be overwhelming from a resource point of view. So the Navy sets those priorities, and we begin to collaborate because the important thing is to have those conversations with our engineers, both in the government or the DoD and in industry. Before we settle on the final requirement, we want to get it right the first time. And then what we do through the power of the network is we take these opportunities or these requirement challenges and we distribute them to all of our members, all 920-plus members, so everybody gets to participate. And not just to collaborate, but also to drive competition. And in order to give the very best proposals to the Navy, and then they’ll make a selection and we’re off to the races.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Charlie Zisette, he is executive director of the National Armaments Consortium. And just briefly tell us a little bit about the Consortium itself, who are the members and what kinds of work they do?

Charlie Zisette: Well, thank you very much. The Consortium really consists of what we call traditional defense contractors and nontraditional defense contractors. Of our 920 members, over 850 of those are non traditional defense contractors. Our goal is to create an organization that brings together those that have great technologies out in the private sector, but have never really worked in the defense sector, and quite frankly, wouldn’t know how to operate in the kinds of requirements and ilities that the defense requires. So we create this mentor-protege program that allows the nontraditional technology innovators, entrepreneurs that have some of the most phenomenal capabilities and bring them into – with our traditional defense contractors, the names that we’re all familiar with: General Dynamics, Lockheed, Boeing, and the like. And that is what this is all about is to leverage that power of the network to collaborate, and then to innovate.

Tom Temin: I wanted to ask you about what we know of other nations’ activities in this whole area of armaments and of energetics, particularly China and Russia, you know, the rivals that the military is saying and in doctrine pivoting to. Are they working on this kind of thing and could we be outgunned, even in the traditional types of weapons systems?

Charlie Zisette: While we know, without going into great detail, that they are not standing idle. They have aggressive development programs, they are advancing the state of the art, we know that they are our largest challenge and our largest threat, there are some indications that they are advancing faster than we are. And this is our chance to go and take care of that technology gap, if you will, between us and our peer competitors.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the things being worked on at this point? Do we know, can you describe some of the work?

Charlie Zisette: Absolutely. The first and foremost is the development of precursors and raw materials to ensure that we have a strong source of supply. We develop both process technology and pilot scale for ingredients that go into fuses. And we’ve been working on advanced gun propellants and advanced rocket propellants that will give us more range, and also worry about, in some cases lower signature. We don’t want to give away our position on the battlefield. And so there’s a lot of advancement in higher energy, also, and safety and lower vulnerability, so that we can carry the loads without issues. The other one is to lighten the load. And there’s a lot of work going on in trying to develop lighter ammunition, anything we can do to make it easier on our soldiers and warfighters. And all of our folks out in the field.

Tom Temin: Because I once toured a federal facility where they make energetic explosive materials in great big vats, it almost looks like a steel melting-type of that inside a building, of course, pretty well reinforced and tons of safety protocols. People had to leave the building when the poor was going on, and all this kind of thing. And that’s highly specialized and can be dangerous if not managed well. Is the idea of the supply chain, the ability of the industrial supply base, and not just the government itself, being able to manufacture these types of things in the quantity needed by something as large as the Navy, part of the research?

Charlie Zisette: Absolutely. One of the one of the principal opportunities is the NSWC Indian Head division is an arsenal and a depot. And it has over 900 buildings that are used for producing energetic materials, and there are very few left that have that kind of capability and capacity. So imagine now we can appeal to some of these nontraditionals. These great chemists, chemical engineers, they have a place now where they can scale up or they can experiment with some of the technology that they’re developing. And so one of my hopes is to start to establish these public-private partnerships that can use these defense facilities capabilities, their laboratory engineers and scientists bring them all together in this, a well-disciplined and focused community and I’ll tell you, sky’s the limit.

Tom Temin: Just don’t try cooking this at home.

Charlie Zisette: I would say absolutely not, there’s a reason we call them energetic materials.

Tom Temin: Charlie Zisette is executive director of the National Armaments Consortium. Thanks so much for joining me.

Charlie Zisette: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more information at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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