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Orbital ATK tested for the first time on March 29, 2018 a partially 3D printed warhead meant for hypersonic applications on a test range in Burnet, Texas. [Image: Orbital ATK]

The debate over the ethics of 3D printed weaponry just got kicked into high gear with the testing of a partially 3D printed warhead for hypersonic weapons, which is a weapon that can travel faster than Mach 5, a speed five times faster than that of sound. The testing of the 50lb warhead took place at a facility in Burnet, Texas amidst thin metal paneling set up to measure fragmentation and observed from a bunker hundreds of yards away from the detonation site. The device, created by Orbital ATK for the Defense Department, has three out of its five major components created by 3D printers and is the first time such a device has been tested by the company. Orbital ATK’s Vice President and General Manager Pat Nolan explained what his company was setting out to do with this warhead and the test:

“Now we’re coupling our rocket motor hypersonic experience with our warhead design experience to design a warhead that can survive at high speeds, high temperatures, when you’re going that fast…Right now we’re spending our own [internal research and development] to position ourselves to play when the customer comes around and says, ‘Have this need in this large set. How can you help me?’ And so it just helps us with our suite of capabilities to answer questions once we have that demonstration in hand.”

The warhead went from idea to test in a whirlwind 60 days, and the company estimates that this timeframe is approximately six weeks shorter than it would have been had they had to rely on traditional manufacturing methods. Orbital ATK’s Program Manager, Richard Truitt, was at the test site to observe the blast and spoke with Defense News about the advantages provided through 3D printing:

“We are really happy to do this test with additive manufactured parts because it’s going to tell us, does that actually function the way a normal component would…It’s too early to say it’s going to match our model, but it’s what we were expecting…If you walk around it, you will see it’s not a cylinder, it’s got some really complicated dimensions. Getting that part in that dimension in a very short time is nearly impossible.”

A view from the front of the arena on the test range as the warhead detonates. [Image: Orbital ATK]

In addition to shaving off time in the development of such a warhead, the use of additive manufacturing technology would most likely also lead to a reduction in the cost to create such a device, both in terms of the human hours of labor and in terms of the reduced quantities of waste created by a shift from subtractive production. Some would argue that the benefits aren’t only in cost and time, however, but also in terms of positioning in the global arms race. The Defense Department clearly views the development of hypersonic weaponry as a priority, as it has increased the budget for research and development in this area significantly each year for the last two years. The positioning of the US in terms of hypersonic weaponry was described by Physicist and Co-Director of the Carnegie Institute’s Nuclear Policy Program, James Acton:

“Experts often argue the United States is behind in this technology because Russia and China appear to be testing more frequently. This is true, but in many ways, the United States is running a different race from Russia and China. So US goals are much more demanding that Russian and Chinese goals.”

But in his mind, this is not a reason to feel satisfied as he believes there are signs that Russia has or is working to achieve hypersonic weapons capacity, something which presents a “new and potentially very significant security threat to the United States and its allies…as..such weapons would allow Russia to threaten, with non-nuclear warheads, targets in Europe and eventually the continental United States.” In response to this potential threat, the Navy developed and tested a hypersonic weapon that would allow them to hit a target at any location around the globe in less than 60 minutes. The Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Michael Griffin, said that the creation of hypersonic capabilities for the military is the “highest technical priority.” In early 2016, Orbital ATK successfully tested a 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source: Defense News]

 

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