Low signature propellants

(Remark: The following blog post is not satisfactorily researched. I still want to put it on-line because I'm not going to complete this research any time soon and it appears that the topic has much less attention and awareness level than it deserves. Maybe someone else will pick up the topic and share a more satisfactory piece.)

The common story is that ground combat changed radically with the advent of machine guns and that the French mis-used their mitrailleuses wrongly in 1870. That's mistaking a symptom for a cause in my opinion.

The real change was rather the move away from black powder towards smokeless powders. It was this invention that made practical very rapid fire with lots of repeating rifles or with a machine gun.
Maxim's machine gun used with black powder as propellant in the cartridges produced so much smoke that the gunner was blinded within seconds (unless there were strong winds).

The new smokeless (or rather 'less smoke') powders / propellants were developed during the 1880's and introduced mostly during the 1890's. They changed rapid fire into rapid, aimable fire and this was the great leap forward in ground combat technology (well, this and the fact that the higher muzzle velocities and new explosives gave artillery a completely new meaning).

The historical example tells us that smokeless or generally lesser signature propellants can have profound effects, likely to be called "revolutionary" by many people sooner or later.

Such a change may be about to happen again.

Much propellant and explosives research has been directed at some exotic propellants for Mach 5 missiles, at insensitive munitions for less secondary explosion hazards and for less environmentally troublesome propellants (many soldiers remember that normal rifle cartridge propellant gasses can be quite troublesome for breathing beings under certain conditions. I had my personal experience with this, too).
There's a relatively low attention development as well, though: Rocket propellants that produce less flame and no smoke. Some progress had already been made a while ago (especially for the 1990's anti-tank missiles, and light anti-tank weapons tend to have a reduced signature as well), but some really powerful, insensitive smokeless rocket propellants appear to be underway. Composites with CL-20 included, ADL (ammonium dinitramide) and some others.

I don't want to needlessly infringe copyright, so I ask you to follow this link and look at slide 22 instead. Seriously, do it. It's the essential spice of this blog text.

Low signature solid fuel propellants can change many influential assessments.
Recoilless weapons might finally shed their signature issues and become truly practical (the amount of flash and smoke of recoilless guns was inviting too much counter-fire) and leave their niches to become more mainstream weapons.
Aircraft anti-missile systems would also be affected, as they tend to look out for IR signatures (large darting flame) and/or UV signatures (smoke trail) to spot and track incoming missiles and possibly launchers, too. This might not work so well against low signature propellant-driven missiles. Such sensors, sensors as the previously mentioned DAS and wartime experiences against truly dangerous opponents might become powerful drivers for lower signature propellants.

We might even live to see new tanks in the 2020's which dispense with heavy single fire cannons because of this development. A stub gun such as as once the M81E1 could fire both powerful single shots against soft targets and hypersonic anti-tank missiles (kinetic energy penetration) with minimal signatures. Another possibility would be the combination of such missiles in missile launchers couple with rapid fire main guns.
Such a shift would exploit the great power of hypervelocity missiles without the fixed costs of a big cannon and without the signature issues experienced with the known HVMs.

Some common wisdom is dependant on a context hat may change with technological progress change. The limitation of recoilless weapons and some limits to rockets and missiles as well as certain sensor technologies may be influenced greatly by low signature propellants, as such could make old conventional wisdom obsolete and change the armament structure and tactics of ground forces (and air forces) a lot. It is a bit strange how little attention this admittedly chemo-wonkish issue enjoys in comparison to the prominence of electronics wizardry or the 'tungsten versus uranium' ammo debates.


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