During the Cold War, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) was the primary producer of lethal chemical munitions used as a deterrent against the threat of chemical and/or biological offensive attacks from the former Soviet Union. Since the United States’ signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, ECBC’s chemical and biological research has been focused on creating defensive posture items for U.S. Forces.
ECBC’s Obscuration and Nonlethal Engineering Branch retains the core expertise of the Center’s former Munitions Directorate, whose mission was to design, develop and produce lethal, nonlethal/riot control, incendiary and smoke/obscurant munitions.
"One of the most important defensive techniques for Warfighters in combat is obscuration," said Obscuration and Nonlethal Engineering Branch Chief Kevin Fritz. "And the ECBC Obscuration and Nonlethal Engineering Branch is the Army’s focal point for smoke payload support - pyrotechnic smoke mixes, obscurants and energetic materials."
Smoke and obscuration has proven to be a cost-effective force multiplier when used on the battlefield and is a key element in determining battlefield strategic goals and outcomes. During the history of U.S. conflicts, obscuration was used offensively and defensively to provide protection in the air, on land and at sea. One of the primary functions of obscuration has been to provide protection for armored vehicles, using obscurants produced by mechanized smoke generators and vehicle-launched grenades capable of screening in the visible, infrared and millimeter wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The importance of obscuration as a defense technique was recently showcased at the 2011 Obscurants Symposium in Baltimore. The symposium offered opportunities for professionals from military installations, government contractors and high-tech companies to brief peers on current obscuration technologies, discuss future needs in obscurant capabilities and brainstorm new and effective ways to protect the 21st century Warfighter.
While Fritz’s team did not provide briefings or displays at this year’s symposium, the branch was present as representatives of the support they provided to the M106 under the management of the Joint Program Manager for Reconnaissance and Platform Integration.
The M106, slated to reach full rate production in the beginning of 2012, can disseminate its fill quickly and is appropriate for special and indoor operations.
Some obscurants, such as the colored smokes used in the M18 hand grenades, are used to provide signaling or marking as a means to communicate emerging needs on the battlefield, such as signaling for the airlift of injured personnel. Many of these items were developed by and continue to be supported by ECBC through the Obscuration and Nonlethal Engineering Branch.
"The U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School has been the traditional proponent of obscuration technologies, whose primary focus has been on mechanized smoke generators employed by chemical units to produce large obscurant screens on the battlefield," Fritz said.
"Several other high-profile U.S. Army schools have also emerged as primary proponents of obscuration, with the focus on obscurant ammunition deployed by armored platforms, infantry and artillery. We still get feedback about how obscuration saves lives in the field against enemies such as snipers."
The Obscuration and Nonlethal Engineering Branch also excels in their ingenuity, applied innovation and collaborative efforts with other organizations to provide the best support to the Warfighter.
"Probably the highest profile project we are working on is the development of proposals to utilize obscurant and nonlethal items for defense of expeditionary base camps," Fritz said. "The expeditionary camps are those set up in Afghanistan and other places in theater."
According to Fritz, insurgents have been shelling these camps with mortar cartridges and rocket-propelled grenades, inflicting many casualties among U.S. forces and forcing them to abandon many of the camps. Responding to a request for proposals to provide protection to the camps, Fritz’s team began working in March to develop concepts for adapting obscurant munitions currently used for vehicle protection to the protection of these camps. Also proposed was the use of nonlethal agents, such as malodorants and marking agents known as "taggants."
Essentially, the nonlethal agents would be used to drive an enemy from cover, after which lethal force could be used, or as a crowd dispersant if the enemy force faced is a civil disturbance and not a lethal attack.
The taggants can be used to either visibly mark (paint) or mark with a hidden (ultraviolet or infrared) substance. These markers can be used actively from direct fire platforms to mark enemies with the intention of identifying them later, or could be pre-emplaced to effect direct transfer to enemy personnel or equipment as a method of finding out what routes enemy forces are using.
"I briefed the technical director of the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) on May 20, and he and his colleagues expressed interest in pursuing the ideas further," Fritz said. "At an earlier NSRDEC meeting, one attendee enthusiastically welcomed obscurant technology proposals from ECBC, stating, ‘In places like Afghanistan one of the significant battlefield threatsin places like these camps is a low-tech enemy using lethal conventional weapons,’" Fritz said.
In the upcoming months, the branch has many other customer-funded projects planned. One of those projects includes the recapitalization of 55,000 M825A1 projectiles to restore them to usable condition by replacing internal components that have exceeded design shelf life and redesigning the delay module.
Additionally, Fritz’s team is collaborating with Engineering’s Pyrotechnics and Explosives Branch to design and test AN-M14 incendiary hand grenade product improvements in order to enhance safety by elimination of incendiary fragments and increase of the lag time between fuse initiation and grenade functioning.
"The Pyrotechnic and Explosives Branch had previously developed an improved fill for the AN-M14 that was safer for both personnel and the environment," Fritz said. "These design enhancements requested by our customer will further enhance the safety, reliability and use possibilities of the AN-M14 incendiary grenade."