A recent Pentagon probe has revealed that the U.S. Defense Department may be running out of domestic suppliers of so-called energetic materials used in military munitions. The end result could be the U.S. relying on foreign suppliers for materials such as explosives, propellants, pyrotechnics and other ingredients.
“A large number of materials are at risk of becoming unavailable to the department over the next couple of years,” according to findings by a "tiger team" that Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall chartered in February 2012.
The report, as cited by the National Defense Industrial Association, or NDIA, was discussed at a recent Precision Strike Association meeting in Springfield, Va., where Jose M. Gonzalez, director of land warfare and munitions within Kendall’s office, said the team included in its report participants from all branches of the military, U.S. Special Operations Command, every major defense agency, NASA and the Department of Energy.
The group reportedly identified 181 “at risk” materials, four of which were labeled “critically at risk.” Furthermore, the findings concluded that 131 of the 181 materials are made either by a single source producer in the United States or only by foreign manufacturers.
“The supply network is very fragile and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future,” the report says.
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While the NDIA reports that Gonzalez did not specify which materials were of most concern to the Pentagon, Army officials in 2010 cited triaminotrinitrobenzene, or TATB, lead azide and calcium silicide among the energetic materials that had either one or no domestic producers.
Gonzalez went on to suggest that the dilemma for the Pentagon is whether it should be subsidizing certain U.S. suppliers if their products are considered indispensable.
“Throwing money at a problem is going to be harder to do in this fiscal environment,” he said.
Gonzalez’ office is studying ways in which the Defense Department can be “proactive” in helping to keep key suppliers financially viable and avert the need of a government bailout, the NDIA reports.
It is difficult to predict if and when the U.S. energetics materials industry will collapse because of the large number of “potential single point failures,” the team said. “A Defense Department-wide solution, which includes industry participation, is needed.”
According to Gonzalez, the Pentagon has already taken action to revitalize domestic production of TATB, resorting to the DoD-Ordnance Technology Consortium, a public-private partnership with 214 member companies.
While members were asked to propose ways to produce and reclaim qualified TATB, one U.S. contractor, BAE Ordnance Systems, has made the cut, Gonzalez said. “I've been told that BAE at Holston [Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee] has made the first 500-pound batch of material and appears to meet specs.”
Despite the recent report, outsourcing by the Pentagon is not a new phenomenon. From 2007 to 2011, the Defense Department was granted hundreds of thousands of waivers to the “Buy American” law, costing jobs in the U.S., according to a report issued by Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. The 161,000 waivers sent $53.5 billion overseas, costing 620,000 American jobs, the report says.