Composite developments for Army weapons systems

Composites can produce tougher and lighter armaments for the U.S. Army.

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Andrew Littlefield, mechanical engineer at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, US), believes that composite materials can help the Army have stronger, lighter and more durable weapons.

Most armaments are still constructed almost entirely of steel, as they have been for more than a century, he said in an article published on the Army News Service. Heat resistance has real applicability to Army weapons systems because excessive heat is what often causes those systems to fail. Besides the ability of some composites to withstand a lot of heat, another advantage is their lightweight properties.

The Army has done some work with composites, for example, the XM360 120mm cannon, part of the now-canceled Future Combat Systems. To ensure that the composite jacket fits securely over the barrel of the XM360, the steel core was first contracted by chilling it with frozen carbon dioxide, Littlefield said. Then, thermal plastic was wrapped tightly around it. Finally, as the frozen barrel warmed up, it expanded into the composite jacket. Fourteen barrels were produced in this manner and each was tested. Some of them fired as many as 250 rounds. Tests were a complete success and the "technology is sitting on the shelf, ready for use," he said. 

Among crew-served weapons, the 81mm mortar tube and baseplate are now being researched for composites integration. Testing should begin in about another year, according to the Army.

Littlefield said that metal and ceramics composites are being tested to help with excessive overheating in mortar tubes. Composites could also help reduce the weight of mortar tubes, placing less of a burden on the teams that use them. Composites could reduce the entire weapon from 90 pounds down to 50 pounds, he said. The base plate could go from 25 to 15 pounds.

Work is also being done to lighten the M109A6/M284 Paladin Cannon bore evacuator, using composite technology similar to that used on the M256 cannon of the Abrams tank. Composites should lighten the M284 Bore Evacuator from 200 to 78 pounds. The new composites should be ready for use in about five years and may also be used for the 155mm howitzer, the article stated.