The Energetics Technology Center (ETC) in Indian Head, Md., is examining which of a half dozen munitions, among them the Lockheed Martin [LMT] AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), would be the best candidates to test and possibly outfit with the CL-20 explosive.

The military has thus far used CL-20 in limited instances, including in the AeroVironment Switchblade 300 “kamikaze” drone, which DoD has supplied to Ukraine, and in initiator devices to trigger energetic materials—explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics.

“We’re looking at three different [weapon] systems where we could run a demonstration program to show the efficacy of CL-20, either in terms of improved propulsion throw distance for persistence or improved warhead performance,” Bob Kavetsky, ETC’s CEO, said in a March 27 telephone interview. “We haven’t settled on the three systems..but we need to have some analytics done and look at which ones are the most effective for the use of CL-20.”

Military organizations, including the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command’s munitions directorate at Eglin AFB, Fla., are aiding that analysis.

Last month, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) arranged an ETC briefing to more than a dozen House members on ETC’s proposal to revitalize and revolutionize energetics for the U.S. military, including a ramp-up of production and use of CL-20 and the development of even more advanced energetics to build numerous smaller munitions with more firepower (Defense Daily, March 24).

ETC’s June, 2021 report on improving U.S. energetics had come to the attention of Gallagher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

While Northrop Grumman [NOC] has annually produced 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of CL-20 in Promontory, Utah, the company may be able to scale up production significantly, especially if costs dropped, including through economic order quantities.

“To make all of the explosives and propellants we need for all of our weapons requires about 300 ‘critical chemicals,'” Kavetsky said. “That list of 300 ranges from chemicals we might need 10,000 pounds a year to a couple million pounds a year. There’s a half dozen of those materials that are sole-sourced from China.”

Nearly all energetics used by U.S. military forces date back at least 80 years, according to ETC. They include the octogen (HMX) explosive invented in 1941; hexogen/cyclonite (RDX) explosive invented in 1898; nitrocellulose (NC) propellant invented in 1832; nitroglycerine (NG) explosive and propellant from 1847; trinitrotoluene (TNT) from 1863; and the ammonium perchlorate oxidizer from the early 20th century.

With funding from an Office of Naval Research effort to find new energetics to improve explosive and propellant performance, Navy research chemist, the late Arnold T. Nielsen, first synthesized CL-20–China Lake compound number 20–at Naval Air Weapons Center (NAWC) China Lake, Calif., in 1987.

“The discrepancy in [CL-20] performance is enormous: compared to U.S. HMX-based explosives,” ETC said. “CL-20 has a 40 percent increase in penetration depth, which is a significant increase in overall warhead lethality for specific applications.”

The Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Kingsport, Tenn., operated by BAE Systems, produces RDX and HMX for U.S. munitions.

ETC said that China is using CL-20 in its weapons and has far surpassed the U.S. in advanced energetics.

More explosive power per pound also means CL-20 lends greater range to munitions, ETC said.

“Part of the challenge of CL-20 right now is it’s more complicated to make than HMX,” Kavetsky said. “We haven’t been putting out the demand signal [that] we want CL-20. What you find is that industry is very good at responding to demand so if the Defense Department put out a demand that we need two million pounds of CL-20-based propellants, industry could figure out how to make it…It’s a little bit of a Catch-22. Until the requirement comes out, industry is not gonna put the investment into figuring out how to scale it up in a cost-effective fashion.”