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The Weapons Gap With the PRC the USA Created and Funded: it Goes Boom
If you don’t wake up every morning cursing those responsible for defense and China policy in the 1990s … the gobsmackingly short sighted arrogance of it all – then what use are you, actually?
With a few exceptions, from partially completed CV rusting in Ukraine, to teaching the Communist Chinese how to MIRV ICBM warheads, to opening up our best research institutions to spies an assets, the USA was beset internally by unserious people with the attention span of a hamster and the historical perspective of a newborn in serious jobs requiring long-term thinking and decision making.
The harvest of this decade of frivolity continue to ripen, and via Jeremy Bogaisky, at Forbes – get ready to rage – we have just one more example; one that if we actually come to blows with the People’s Republic of China or those who buy their weapons – will result in more dead American men and women – more mutilated wounded.
People and perspective matter. It appears the PRC has known this for decades;
In 1987, U.S. Navy researchers invented a new explosive with fearsome capabilities. Named China Lake Compound No. 20 after the Southern California base where it was developed, it boasted up to 40% greater penetrating power and propellant range than the U.S. military’s mainstay explosives, which were first produced during World War II.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the Pentagon’s urgency evaporated. So did the expensive task of perfecting CL-20 and designing weapons to use it.
…and how did they get CL-10? Where was the CIA, the FBI? Oh, that’s right – playing around in domestic politics.
Meanwhile, the PRC was sending grad students; inserting citizens in the right companies. Doing just plain good old fashioned espionage.
China, however, saw the potential. The country has invested heavily in developing long-range missiles with the aim of forcing U.S. warships and non-stealthy aircraft like refueling tankers to operate at a distance if Chinese forces invade Taiwan. Some of those weapons are believed to be propelled by a version of CL-20, which China first fielded in 2011 and now produces at scale.
“This is a case where we could potentially be beaten over the head with our own technology,” Bob Kavetsky, head of the Energetic Technology Center, a nonprofit research group that does work for the government, told Forbes.
Kavetsky and other experts in energetics, the niche field of developing things that go boom, have been warning for years that the U.S., long the world leader, has fallen dangerously behind China. The Pentagon last year outlined a plan to spend $16 billion over 15 years to upgrade and expand its aging network of munition plants, but Kavetsky warns that doesn’t include developing the advanced manufacturing capabilities needed to mass produce new explosives like CL-20.
No, we are not being led by the best and brightest™ - we are not promoting our best - we do not have the right mix of incentives and disincentives.
…the U.S. depends on China as the single source for about half-dozen chemical ingredients in explosives and propellants, and other countries of concern for another dozen.
Yes, you read that correctly. I am sure Russia is in there too.
Like I said, criminal. You cannot commission new chemical plants overnight.
“We can’t build enough ships and airplanes to carry the number of missiles necessary to reverse the firepower imbalance we have inside the first island chain,” said retired Major General Bill Hix, who served as the Army’s director of strategy after commanding forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has consulted for the Energetic Technology Center.
“The only solution is new energetic materials,” he said. That would allow the U.S. to produce smaller missiles with the same power, so more could be carried by warplanes and ships, as well as to enable weapons that can shoot farther and pack more of a punch.
The PRC has over a decade head start building on R&D the USA paid for.
Wittman said he supports the idea of retrofitting existing missiles with CL-20 and creating a high-level office devoted to energetics under the secretary of defense. While decision makers at the Pentagon are aware of the issues, “I don’t think they see a sense of urgency with it,” Wittman said. “We’re going to instill a sense of urgency with them.”
Chinese scientists account for about three-quarters of the published research on energetics and in related fields over the last five years, nearly seven times as much as U.S. researchers, according to analyses from the Hudson Institute and Georgetown University. They’re working on materials that have improved performance over CL-20, Kavetsky said.
I would really like to see where those Chinese scientists got their degrees from, but you pretty much know.
As for the sense of urgency, what have we discussed here through the years about the 2nd and 3rd order effects of our accretion encumbered acquisition process? What does it cause? Just re-read the above.
Want another example of an existential threat to the Cult of Efficiency created?
Nearly all U.S. explosives are produced at a single Army-owned plant in Holston, Tennessee, that dates back to World War II and is run by U.K.-based defense contractor BAE Systems (2022 revenue: $25.5 billion). The production processes generally are as old, Kavetsky said, with explosives prepared in 400-gallon vats that resemble cake mixers. Many advanced energetic materials can’t be made that way, including CL-20, which he said is synthesized in smaller amounts in chemical reactors.
All one needs is a pickup truck and a mortar team and game over. Single point of failure. As if you designed something to make you combat ineffective at D+1.
It would be possible to make 20,000 pounds of CL-20 a year with current amounts of precursor chemicals, Kavetsky said, but broad use would require 2 million pounds a year, which he believes could take three to five years to scale up to. “If DoD says we want large quantities,” he said, “industry will respond.”
“If DoD says we want large quantities, industry will respond.”
Not if we lose our one plant or run out of the chemicals – which I am sure are just in time delivered – that China is nice enough to export to us.
How long would it take for just then environmental impact statement to be completed?
Hix said he doubts those promising technologies will be ready for prime time this decade, but the U.S. could fairly rapidly boost its firepower with better explosives and propellants.
“A concerted effort on [explosives] is possible,” he said. “But we have to invest in it.”
Oh yes, our “decade of concern” …
The Terrible 20s just keep giving.