Seven Marines were killed in Nevada last week and more injured during a live-fire training exercise with mortar rounds -- a reminder of just how important it is to make advances in less dangerous explosives.
A far stabler new explosive called IMX-101 will soon make soldiers safer on and off the battlefield -- and the U.S. Army on Friday ordered as much as $780 million worth of it.
Hoping to reduce the risk of Nevada-type incidents in the future, the Army will use this new explosive as a replacement for TNT in artillery rounds. Within 10 years, it could completely replace TNT in all large caliber munitions.
TNT vs IMX-101
The new explosives are part of a class called Insensitive Munitions eXplosives or IMX. IMX-101 packs the same punch as TNT, but is a less dangerous explosive for those handling it.
BAE Systems developed IMX-101 and fielded it in partnership with the Army at a plant in Holston, Tenn.
"The work we do at Holston is critical to the defense of our nation and to the safety of our men and women in uniform," said Erin Moseley, president of BAE Systems' Support Solutions sector. "IMX-101 is … revolutionizing military ordnance."
An alternative to TNT or Trinitrotoluene, IMX-101 is instead made with a combination of insensitive "energetic" ingredients like 2,4-Dinitroanisole and Nitrotriazalone. It's designed to remain chemically stable when subjected to a range of shocks like those created by explosions, gunfire, shrapnel impact and fire.
Traditional TNT can be temperamental and vulnerable to shocks causing it to detonate. Take a vehicle transporting munitions with TNT for example: The impact of a bullet, rocket-propelled grenade or improvised explosive alone could cause detonation, making the cargo as deadly as the attack.
Old rounds with TNT will likely stay stored where they are pending eventual safe disposal.
The Quest for Less Dangerous Explosives
The U.S. Army Common Low-cost Insensitive Munitions Explosive program was designed to identify less dangerous yet equally effective alternatives to TNT.;
As one of the candidates in this program, IMX-101 was loaded into an 155mm M795 artillery projectile and subjected to a battery of tests. It was evaluated against small arms and fragmented munitions attack as well as the impact from a shaped charged weapon.
It was also tested against slow heating from a fire -- say, in an adjacent vehicle -- as well as fast heating that could result from a vehicle fuel fire.
There has been some early speculation that the cause of the Nevada tragedy was an event called "sympathetic reaction," something that occurs from the same munitions in a magazine, store, aircraft or vehicle. IMX-101 was also tested against this sort of risk.
Testing showed the new explosive had far greater safety features like improved thermal and shock sensitivity. It passed all of the U.S. Army's tests.
Over the next five years, BAE Systems will produce the explosives at the Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee – a plant capable of producing millions of pounds of IMX-101 on an annual basis.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie