Army aims for biodegradable ammunition
Friday, February 03, 2017
Will U.S. Army soldiers soon start using biodegradable training ammunition? According to a new solicitation the Department of Defense made with the Small Business Innovation Research Program, that is a goal the organization is hoping to achieve in the near future.
In short, the Army hopes to start using training ammunition that is both biodegradable and contains seeds that will grow into plants to further remove soil contaminants. This specific solicitation focuses on developing biodegradable 40mm, 60mm, 81mm, 120mm and 155mm training rounds used by Army mortars, tanks and howitzers. If it is successful, the Army might pursue further development of similar training ammunition for small arms weapons.
Training ammunition currently used by the Army often contains a number of toxic heavy metals, like lead, which can result in polluted training sites and even contaminated drinking water from toxic run-off. Not surprisingly, these problems are both hazardous to the health of those working and living nearby as well as expensive to clean up.
Though it's an ambitious goal to be sure, this is not the first time the military has attempted to develop more environmentally friendly ammunition.
For instance, the Army successfully developed the M855A1 — a lead-free version of the 5.56x45mm M855 ball cartridge used in the M4 and M16 rifles — a few years ago. While the program had more than its fair share of problems, the resulting cartridge is not only more environmentally friendly, but is also just a better performer. It's more accurate, has a flatter trajectory, penetrates better and is more lethal than the old M855 round.
I used the M855A1 on a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012-2013, and I was impressed by the performance of the cartridge. I was not alone with my assessment of the round, and many experts much more knowledgeable on the subject than I consider it the best 5.56mm ball ammunition in the world.
So, assuming that developing biodegradable ammunition is indeed feasible, is it worth it? The M855A1 program demonstrated many of the pitfalls of developing environmentally friendly ammunition. The program was time consuming, controversial, and very costly. Even now, with the development complete and most of the bugs worked out of the cartridge, it is still more expensive to produce per round than the old M855 cartridge.
However, when conducting a cost analysis of developing biodegradable ammunition, we must take everything into account, not just the up-front and "per unit" costs of the project. For instance, while developing ammunition like this is sure to be expensive, it could very well end up saving money in the long run by reducing long-term environmental cleanup costs and health hazards resulting from polluted training sites and groundwater.
Also, it should be noted that, unlike the M855A1 cartridge, the current solicitation for biodegradable ammunition only impacts training ammunition, not the service ammunition used by military servicemen and women in combat zones. So, the lethality and reliability of this hypothetical new biodegradable ammunition is less of a concern than it would be otherwise.
What do you think? Is developing biodegradable training ammunition for the military a worthy goal? Or just another government boondoggle in the making?
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