Recycling ammunition – modern militaries do their bit to reuse and reclaim

1 June 2015 (Last Updated June 1st, 2015 18:30)

In today’s budget conscious, environmentally aware climate, the modern military is well used to doing its bit to reuse, reclaim and recycle – and not just drinks cans, paper and packaging. When it comes to ammunition, collecting spent small-arms cases by the tonne for their brass is one thing, but recycling live high-explosive artillery shells that have passed their use-by date is something altogether different. Dr Gareth Evans finds out more about the process.

Recycling ammunition – modern militaries do their bit to reuse and reclaim

Ammunition

Dealing with surplus, unwanted or hazardous munitions has always been an issue for armies, but increasingly it is about much more than just making them safe and getting back the scrap value of the metal. Now, improved reclamation techniques, such as the new process that recently came on-stream at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant (MCAAP) to turn obsolete munitions into cheaper and safer training rounds for the US Army, mean that it can also represent a significant reduction in direct costs.

Tipped to save an estimated $79m by 2020, the new half-price shells mean soldiers will be able to get more training for their money, while using munitions that closely mimic the ballistics and performance of actual combat rounds.

Out of shelf life

"Nearly all of the D563 projectiles worldwide have exceeded their 20-year storage shelf life - the components and equipment used to make them, if they had to be replaced, are no longer readily available and would be cost-prohibitive to facilitate," explains David A. Kondras, project officer for the smoke and illumination branch of the conventional ammunition division at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey.

However, salvaged and with their sub-munitions removed and demilitarised, they make an ideal starting point for the US Army's primary 155mm training projectile for HE artillery fire missions - the M1122.

According to Scott Sullivan, the M1122 project manager at MCAAP, almost all of the obsolete D563 projectile bodies recovered can be reused thanks to the new process. Known as 'soft touch', he says it is specifically designed to preserve the projectile's base plate, and protect its nose and body from additional gouges or other damage in the handling process.



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"There are two critical characteristics that make the base plate reusable. The threads must be intact so the base plate can be re-installed, and the indentions in the exterior of the base plate, which are designed for a tool to apply torque to the base plate, must be serviceable in order for sufficient torque to be applied to seal the base plate onto the projectile body."

New rounds from old

The projectiles and base plates are first inspected and cleaned to ensure they meet the standards as serviceable items, and their explosive contents then removed and demilitarised, before being loaded and assembled into new M1122 rounds.

"The base plates are installed back onto the projectile bodies to the same new specifications as the original projectiles," Sullivan says. "The bulk of the projectile body is filled with a high density cement mixture, and the top of the cement is covered with a layer of asphalt and the IMX-101 explosive. A cavity is drilled into the IMX-101 to hold the supplemental charge which is part of the firing train. Completed M1122s are weighed to ensure they meet the same physical characteristics as the original munitions."

Safety lay behind the choice of IMX-101 (Insensitive Munition Explosive-101) as the high-explosive fill. While it provides the same explosive effect as traditional TNT, it is more stable and so much less likely to explode in a fire, or if shot at or involved in an accident during transport, making it well suited to the M1112's primary intended use in training.

Cheaper and greener bullets

Kondras points out that being able to reuse projectile bodies, and so avoid the cost of producing new ones, on the back of funding already in place to reduce the stockpile of obsolete D563, represents a major financial benefit, and one that seems set to grow. He says that the US Army has already fielded two other projectiles that reuse D563 metal parts - the M1123 infrared and M1124 visible light illuminating projectiles - and there are a few more currently in development.

"Nearly all of the D563 projectiles worldwide have exceeded their 20-year storage shelf life."

"The expected cost avoidance associated with reusing metal parts for all of these projectiles is nearly $100m over the next five years," Kondras says.

The advantages of adopting a more sustainable approach to ammunition are not, however, simply economic.

Since 1995, the small caliber ammunition branch of the United States Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center has been working to end the use of hazardous materials in small-arms cartridges and their manufacture. Traditionally reliant on a range of ozone depleters, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, conventional ammunition presents a series of health and environmental challenges throughout its entire life cycle, in the manufacturing process, during use and for eventual demilitarisation and disposal.

Launched in September 2005, the second phase of the DoD's Green Bullet programme set out to replace the lead-cored 5.56mm M855 cartridge, and address its shortcomings in short-barrelled weapons such as the M4. The resulting M855A1 enhanced performance round (EPR) has a lead-free, copper-cored steel-tipped bullet, eliminating 2.1 grams of lead per round.

The EPR has been in service in Afghanistan since 2010, and official estimates say that issuing the new projectile had removed nearly 2,000 tonnes of lead from the waste stream over the following two years.

Uncompromised performance

Whether ammunition is new or recycled, and destined to be fired from assault rifles or field artillery, no matter how green it may be, performance is everything, and it seems the DoD is very happy with the outcome.



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Although the development of the EPR was not without its problems, and some - admittedly chiefly outside the military - have their reservations about the round, the US Army itself has described it as "the most significant advancement in general purpose small caliber ammunition in decades."

At the other end of the scale, the performance of the new M1122 promises unparalleled realism for future generations of soldiers. According to Marty Moratz, chief of the conventional ammunition division, for the past ten or 15 years, the shell that has been used for training was a cheaper option, but one that weighs less and has a shorter range than the M795. The M1122, however, which has been specifically designed to replicate the ballistics, appearance and function of the 155mm M795 HE projectile will now, he says, allow soldiers to train the way they fight.

Applying sustainability principles to ammunition clearly has its benefits; as Kondras puts it, it really is a "win-win situation."

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