Four years ago June, the US Army adopted the lead-free 5.56 mm M855A1 Enhanced Performance cartridge as its standard combat ammunition. Instead of the traditional lead core, the bullet has a copper core. Actually, this isn’t the first time the Army has gone “green”—three other lead-free versions came before the M855A1—but this model finally demonstrated better field performance in addition to environmental factors. However, the 15-year search for a practical “green” bullet probably cost taxpayers about $100 million. In an age where anti-war sentiment in the US rivals that of the 1960s and ‘70s during Vietnam, we have to wonder: can we really achieve an eco-friendly military? And if so, is it worth it?
When the Army talks about environmental hazards, it means material waste, not lethality of projectiles. The bullets and grenades must still “neutralize” the enemy, but their manufacture and disposal should not harm the rest of us (including the troops) through volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone-depleting substances, and heavy metals. From the Army’s perspective, this is only logical.
The Army’s efforts to engineer a more environmentally friendly bullet began back in 1995, when the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) established the Joint Working Group (JWG) for Non-Toxic Ammunition. Funded through the Army’s Environmental Center, the JWG offered contracts to research centers. First, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (yes, the atomic bomb people) came up with a tungsten-tin bullet, while the Texas Research Institute manufactured one made of tungsten and nylon. Interestingly, there was no hesitation concerning tungsten, despite the fact that an ARDEC-funded study in 1994 warned of its toxicity. It seems developers were concerned only with replacing lead, deemed more toxic than tungsten. Unfortunately for these initial contractors, production of tungsten bullets would have used up the Western Hemisphere’s entire annual output of the substance. What about the Eastern Hemisphere? It’s true that China produces 88% of the world’s tungsten, but relying on China during wartime, due to our tenuous relationship with the Communist country, would severely compromise US security. As a stop-gap measure, it was decided to recycle the bullets and, if necessary, revert to lead.
By 2000, over 3 million tungsten rounds were ready for testing. Yet the tests showed that the tungsten did not perform as well as the lead-based ammunition. During the resulting delay in production, new studies emerged, revealing that tungsten was just as hazardous as lead and could leach into the soil. The Army had spent $12 million in research, but was left with about 30 million unfired tungsten rounds. Three years later, the US Special Operations Science and Technology Office (SOST) developed an extremely accurate, lethal 5.56 mm round—which contained lead. ARDEC emphasized that the next general-purpose ammunition must “balance cost, performance, and environmental factors.”
Between 2005 and 2008, a collaborate effort began involving ARDEC; the Army’s Project Manager Maneuver Ammunition Systems (PM MAS); the Army Research Lab (ARL); and Alliant Techsystems (parent company of Federal Ammunition and operator of Lake City Army Ammunition Plant). Their goal was to produce a round both “green” (lead-free) and combat-ready. Indeed, only an environmentally friendly round would justify using the funding and program already in place. Otherwise, researchers would be forced to ask for funding for an entirely new development program. Towards the end of 2008, the team had developed a bismuth-tin bullet which seemed to fit the bill. Once again, the bullet failed the performance tests. Over the next few months, the team worked on a new design, this with a copper core. As soon as the bullet demonstrated superior performance in the tests, production got under way, and our troops in Afghanistan received the new rounds. As of this year, Lake City Army Ammunition Plant is also producing a 7.62 mm round of the same design as the 5.56 mm.
The M855A1 is not a perfect cartridge by Army standards, but it offers improved accuracy, lethality, and barrier penetration—all of which are vital qualities for a soldier’s survival and effectiveness. As is usually the case with Army developments, controversy surrounded the new cartridge back home, due to the fact that the program initially stressed “environmental compliance” above accuracy. The green ammo designs would “eliminate 2000 metric tons of hazardous material” every year in keeping with the Army’s “commitment to environmental stewardship.” In fact, and quite ironically, the Army’s 2010 Life Cycle Environmental Assessment referred to developing an eco-friendly bullet as a “moral obligation.”
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NOTE: Views expressed in this blog represent those of the author and do not reflect any affiliation of GBRI as an organization or any opinions we hold as an organization.
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