UK leading the way in weapons innovation


Mike Purnell, Integrated Delivery Team Lead - Maritime & Land

Mixing explosives is a tricky business. An uneven mix could make the charges produced unpredictable, with some underpowered and others overpowered, creating obvious risk.

UK leading the way in weapons innovation image depicting lasers being emitted against red background

Consequently, the explosives industry takes the matter very seriously, using machines akin to giant food mixers to produce huge batches of even material. But this technique is not without its drawbacks. The mixers take a long time to achieve the desired result, are hard to clean, and generate significant volumes of wasted product.

Headache pills don’t have a lot in common with explosives, but medications must similarly be produced with a completely even mix to avoid under or overdosing patients. The pharmaceutical industry has a different technique, called resonant acoustic mixing (RAM), which uses sound energy to produce uniform mixtures in smaller batches, producing less waste, and with fewer moving parts to clean.

These disparate worlds may never have met, had it not been for the UK’s Weapons Science and Technology Centre (WSTC) – a unique collaborative organisation dedicated to seeking out innovative solutions to complex defence problems. The WSTC identified the pharmaceutical industry’s RAM technique as a solution to the defence challenge, adopting it into the manufacture of explosives to lower costs, reduce waste and shorten delivery timescales.

This is just one example of the innovation already taking place in the WSTC – and now the progress is set to carry on for at least another five years, thanks to a new contract awarded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to QinetiQ for its continued management of the organisation. Renamed the Weapons Sector Research Framework (WSRF), the group will now explore novel weapons and effects, such as lasers and radio frequencies, alongside the more established architectures, seekers, guidance and propulsion science.

The WSRF brings organisations of all sizes together to combine expertise, with around 15 per cent of work currently going to small to medium-sized enterprises and academia. These suppliers come from all corners of the UK, including Edinburgh, Belfast, Liverpool, Cranfield, Cambridge, Sheffield, Bristol and South Wales. To qualify as WSRF supplier an organisation must have onshore research capability based in the UK, which helps to sustain domestic employment and create jobs in multiple regions. The number of members has risen from 75 to 94 under the latest contract.

The WSRF secures the UK’s position as an innovation powerhouse within the weapons sector, creating export opportunities that make a significant contribution to the nation’s prosperity. Perhaps most crucially of all, it enables the UK to retain and enhance the sovereignty of its national defence capability – reducing its dependency on other nations to protect its interests, elevating its ability to support allies, and increasing its weight on the global stage.