The Air Force Has a Crazy Idea for a Rocket Fuel Bomb

Michael Peck

Key point: This isn't the first time the military has experimented with wild ideas.

The military uses explosives to blow things up. The military also uses rockets to carry those explosives to their targets.

So why not combine the two and create a rocket whose fuel also doubles as the warhead?

That’s the idea behind an Air Force research project to develop dual-use rocket fuel that also functions as a munition. The idea has precedent, though accidental and hardly desirable. NASA keeps gawkers miles away from the launch pad when it launches rockets from Cape Kennedy, because boosters powerful enough to send a spacecraft into orbit are also powerful enough to devastate the surrounding area if they explode (the explosion of a prototype Soviet Moon rocket in 1960 killed the head of the Soviet Union’s strategic missile forces). But the most famous demonstration of rocket fuel as a weapon came in the 1982 Falklands War, when the destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk not just by the warhead of an Exocet missile, but also unignited propellant that set the ship ablaze.

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Not surprisingly, what the Air Force wants is not just fuel that detonates like a bomb, but also detonates only when it’s supposed to. That’s no easy challenge. “While the energetic crystals within propellants and explosives are often similar indicating dual-mode potential, the formulations are different and optimized for their respective application,” the Air Force noted. Rocket fuel is designed to burn at a certain rate and over a broad range of temperatures (-65 degrees Fahrenheit to 165 degrees, according to the Air Force). Otherwise, the rocket spins out of control or explodes.

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