U.S. Army Contemplates 3D-Printed Warheads

Boring logistics first, futuristic explosives next.

Grenade Explosion

U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is inherently creative. Materials are layered together and built up, constructing an object from powder and heat and code. In the future, the U.S. Army wants to turn this innovation to far more destructive ends, by printing new warheads.

The latest issue of Army Technology focuses on 3-D printing. Designing new shapes for warheads is one promising new avenue of research. In "ARDEC investigates how 3-D printed metals could transform Army logistics", U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center materials engineer James Zunino explains to author Timothy Rider what additive manufacturing can bring to the science of blowing stuff up. Rider captures the core of it here:

Warhead designers attempt to create blast effects that meet specific criteria, explained Zunino. They may want blast fragments of specific sizes to radiate in specific directions such that their blasts can most effectively destroy desired targets. “Once you get into detonation physics you open up a whole new universe,” Zunino said. The limits on what can be produced using machine tools limit warhead shapes. By lifting limitations through the expanded capabilities that come with additive manufacturing, space is used more efficiently. “The real value you get is you can get more safety, lethality or operational capability from the same space,” Zunino said.

Directing the explosion of a weapon is a big deal, as it can mean both deadlier military tools and more precise attacks. Last winter missile maker MBDA tested a differently shaped charge on a missile whose narrow explosion is designed to hit a target and nothing else. In the future, 3-D printed warheads could do something similar, giving troops and commanders more options about how and to what extent they should blow something up.

While printed warheads are the shiny tip of the spear, it's almost certain that 3-D printing will make a difference with mundane supply tasks like spare parts first. Multiple stories in the issue focus in on this immediate need. In "Getting to Right Faster," Master Sergeant Adam Asclipiadis of the Army's appropriately named Rapid Equipping Force, describes how they used Statasys Fortus 3-D printers in Afghanistan.

First, REF engineers work directly with the Soldier to understand the challenge. Then, they virtually design a prototype solution, incorporating the Soldier’s unique ideas and concept for operations. The REF engineers 3-D print plastic mock ups and deliver them to the requesting unit for immediate feedback. This allows Ex Lab personnel to ensure proper form, fit and function with the end user up front.... Most solutions require three to five iterations before reaching the final prototype. By using forward 3-D printers, the engineering teams are able to print, assess and turn around follow-on plastic prototypes, sometimes in only a few days.

Further articles in the issue examine the military applications of 3-D printing in medicine, food, new materials, at supply depots and in building miniatures to better understand a battlefield. There's also a look at 3-D bioprinting human tissue for treating wounds, especially burn wounds, suffered in the field of battle– perhaps in new patterns left by creatively shaped 3-D printed warheads.

The whole issue is available online here.