US wants to use CL-20 to make lighter, longer-range missiles

The United States Senate has signed off on funding to investigate if CL-20 could be used to produce lighter, longer-range munitions for all branches of the United States armed forces.
Christopher McFadden
CL-20 could increase munitions range by 20%.


The United States Senate has set aside around $13 million for a new program to extend the range of its existing missile and munitions stockpiles. A drop in the ocean for the nation's $886 billion defense bill overall, the new program will investigate using more powerful explosives to make longer-range, lighter, and potentially more potent weapons. China Lake Compound no. 20, CL-20 for short, the chemical in question, could be just the ticket.

More bang, less weight

First created by the government-owned California-based research facility Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the 1980s, CL-20 has a considerably higher energy output than most commonly used explosives. In other words, it packs more of a punch by weight.

If this chemical could be successfully incorporated into current munitions, Reuters report, it could extend some range by as much as 20 percent. The "distance in the Indo-Pacific and sheer size of (China's) Navy means the US needs more ship-killing missiles [to] reach distant targets," Representative Mike Gallagher told Reuters. =

“Unfortunately, the Pentagon has grown complacent using 1940s-era energetics and neglected advanced energetics like CL-20 that are necessary to increasing the range and lethality of our force,” Representative Gallagher explained. “Every foot farther a missile can travel, a foot farther an American service member is from danger," he added.

According to a 2021 report from the US Energetics Technology Center, using new energetic materials can give a 400-pound (181 kg) bomb the same level of lethality as a 1000-pound (454 kg) bomb. This increased efficiency could also allow fighter jets and warships to carry smaller, lighter munitions.

But, while potent, CL-20 is not very resistant to shock, meaning it has a higher risk of accidents and has not been extensively produced. But, as Reuters reports, China has used nanotechnology to decrease the shock sensitivity of Cl-20, which could lead to its mass production in the future. Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne, recently bought by L3Harris Technologies, are among the top chemical manufacturers in the US.

To this end, the Senate has approved the creation of an office for energetic materials within the Department of Defense, which will serve as a coordinating body for the three military branches to investigate using chemicals like CL-20. If the investigation proves fruitful, this initial funding will lead to billions of dollars in future spending.

Playing catch up

According to Reuters, the House version of the yearly defense bill proposes a CL-20 pilot program to replace either the explosive or propellant in three existing weapons. The possible weapons for the program are the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, the Harpoon anti-ship missile, or the Javelin anti-tank weapon, The Defense Post reports.

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