Army engineers more lethal and more explosive fragmenting missiles, artillery

The Army Research Laboratory is now engineering new rocket, missile and artillery rounds able to destroy groups of mobile enemy fighters, incinerate armored vehicles and eliminate structures with a single munition -- all at much longer ranges than currently deployed weapons can fire.

Experts are currently immersed in cutting edge research, using 3D printing, to develop new metal alloys, weapons casings and design geometries to increase range and lethality for the Army’s emerging Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) program.

“Additive manufacturing (3D printing) can take weight out of certain components, create complex geometries inside things and create complex fragmentation patterns,” Dr. Brandon A. McWilliams, materials engineer, lead for Metals Added Manufacturing, Army Research Lab, Combat Capabilities Development Command, told Warrior in an interview at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.

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The Army’s now underway LRPF program is grounded in an effort to engineer a host of new technologies to massively extend range, blast effects and guidance technology for artillery, rockets and missiles, among other weapons. One of the weapons now being prototyped, called the Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, is a surface-to-surface missile that can reach ranges up to 500km (311 miles). This kind of weapon naturally impacts the tactical and strategic equation as it will enable ground forces to destroy enemy targets at much greater ranges, therefore keeping attacking forces at safer standoff distances; it could attack fixed enemy structures, troop locations and other assets such as air defenses to facilitate U.S. air superiority over hostile airspace.

“We have many different experiments that are going on for Long-Range Precision Fires,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin told Warrior in an interview last Fall.

The LRPF will replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) capability, which is impacted by the age of the ATACMS inventory and the cluster munition policy that removes all M39 and M39A1 ATACMS from the inventory after 2018, an Army report stated.

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The ARL initiatives include the development of lighter weight metal alloys, the use of titanium as an alternative and new geometries for metal casings designed to surround explosive materials. The goal of the effort, McWilliams explained, is multi-faceted -- aimed at engineering the ability to tailor a “package to be threat responsive.”

The fragmentation pattern emerging from explosive effects performs essential attack functions as it can determine the kind of impact a weapon has. A wider-spanning or more dispersed release of fragments might be more effective against groups of enemy fighters, whereas more narrowly released fragments might prove more effective against fixed structures or enemy armored vehicles.

“Right now if you have a fragmentation casing, you kind of get what you get. When it blows up you get a certain range, and a lot of the fragments aren’t useful. We want to be able to control that so lethality is increased,” McWilliams said.

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McWilliams likened the goal or intended effect of some rounds to a “fragmentation grenade on a larger scale.”

Lighter weight munitions, functioning as attack projectiles, can naturally achieve longer ranges than heavier rounds, a dynamic that currently underscores the current ARL research effort to find alternative materials.

"Some materials currently available cannot survive things like gun launch or crashing into targets at very high speeds to cause effects. We are developing novel materials with high strength and high toughness,” McWilliams added.

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The current effort is focused on developing new, complex casings for ammunition rounds that can help weapons achieve greater penetration along with more varied or tailorable fragmentation and explosive effects. Newer, lighter weight casings can, for example, allow developers to rearrange and redistribute explosive materials within a given round to improve its lethal effects. 3D printing technology, which relies upon computer design models, can enterprise and build new product configurations not otherwise available.

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"Eventually we want to learn to control how the explosive on the inside blows up and how that makes the fragmentation have a certain pattern size and velocity " McWilliams said.