The war on terrorism and U.S. armed forces’ efforts to improve
their ability to fight similar wars in the future are cutting into
the Pentagon’s program of scrapping its stockpiles of obsolete,
unwanted and dangerous conventional ammunition.
As the services have struggled to modernize their weapons systems,
funding for disposal of obsolete munitions—known as demilitarization,
or demil for short—has declined. Funds for conventional demil
have dropped from a peak of $106 million per year in 1995 to $73
million in 2002, said James Q. Wheeler, director of the U.S. Army’s
Defense Ammunition Center. Now, with a war on, funding apparently
is headed even lower.
“In fiscal year 2003, it’s projected to be $50 million,”
he told National Defense. “That’s going to be a tremendous
challenge for us.”
Wheeler’s center—located at the McAlister Army Ammunition
Plant, near Tulsa, Okla.—conducts munitions-related training
and research for all of the armed services.
Currently, the stockpile of conventional ammunition includes more
than 453,000 tons of outdated bullets, bombs, artillery shells,
torpedoes and missiles, he said. Much of the material in the stockpile
today was manufactured as long ago as World War II. Large portions
of it are unstable and must be handled, stored and discarded with
care, he said.
Munitions are consigned to the stockpile as they are replaced by
more technologically advanced versions, Wheeler explained. The process
has picked up speed since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent
shrinkage of the services, he noted.
“Since 1985, the Army has demilitarized more than 1 million
tons of conventional ammunition,” Wheeler explained. But during
that same period, “almost 1.7 million tons have entered the
Within the next decade, “the forecast is that nearly 1 million
tactical missiles will require demilitarization,” Wheeler
said. Additionally, he said, increased numbers of strategic rocket
motors and nuclear weapons may need to be dismantled.
These munitions come from all military services and other government
agencies, such as the Energy Department, which is responsible for
dismantling nuclear weapons, Wheeler explained. The Army, selected
as the Defense Department’s manager of conventional ammunition,
is responsible for disposing of obsolete non-nuclear items, he noted.
This effort is managed by the Army Material Command’s deputy
chief of staff for ammunition, in Alexandria, Va., with a team at
the Operations Support Command, in Rock Island, Ill., running day-to-day
operations, Wheeler said.
Conventional demil activities are conducted primarily at a dozen
or so Army ammunition plants, depots and arsenals around the United
Until recently, most of the work was done by the services.
The traditional way of disposing of munitions was by open burning
or open detonation. Known as OB/OD, this method consists of burning
or exploding old ammunition in open sites designated for the purpose.
In recent years, however, OB/OD—which involves release of
toxic fumes into the atmosphere—has come into conflict with
increasingly strict federal environmental, health and safety regu-lations,
Wheeler pointed out.
Also, outright destruction of obsolete munitions increasingly is
seen as wasteful, because many of them contain valuable materials
that can be recycled. Recyclable materials in ammunition include
lead projectiles, brass cartridges and even explosives—known
in the industry as energetics—such as gunpowder and TNT.
With this in mind, the Army in 1995 began to move away from open
burning and detonation toward a program of resource recovery and
recycling—known as “R3” or “R cubed”—as
the primary way of disposing of ammunition. The R-cubed process
takes ammunition (the resource), disassembles it, retains valuable
components (recovery) and finds new uses for those parts (recycling).
Disposing of explosive material is tricky, and scientists are working
to find safer and environmentally friendlier ways to do the job.
At the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory at Berkley and the Indian Head Division of the Navy Surface
Warfare Center, in Maryland, researchers have developed a molten-salt
This procedure neutralizes explosive wastes by immersing them in
a molten-salt bath at about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, converting
organic parts of the waste into non-hazardous steam, carbon dioxide
and nitrogen. Inorganic parts, such as metal, remain in the bath,
where they can be removed for later recycling.
Livermore has built molten-salt facilities for the Energy Department
in Richland, Wash.; the Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.,
and the Army in Korea. Another such unit is scheduled to open sometime
this year at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.
General Atomics, of San Diego, has come up with a munitions-disposal
process called cryofracture. It involves cooling the munition in
liquid nitrogen, until the casing becomes brittle and can be cracked
open in a hydraulic press. The explosives then can be removed for
disposal or recycling. Thousands of explosives have been cryofractured
at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah. A $6 million
cryofracture plant, under construction at McAlister, is scheduled
for completion in 2004.
As such technologies emerge, recycling of munitions is growing,
Wheeler said. A decade ago, 87 percent of surplus ammunition was
destroyed, he noted. Now, 68 percent is recycled. The Army eventually
plans to recycle 75 percent.
In 2001, Congress directed the Army to study the feasibility and
costs of eliminating OB/OD altogether. The study found that nearly
95 percent of all OB/OD could be replaced with an 18 percent cost
increase, Wheeler said. To do away with all open burning and detonation
would increase costs by 32 percent, he noted.
As recycling increases, the Army is relying more and more upon
private contractors to do the work, Wheeler explained. A total of
55 percent of the demilitarization budget now is paid to contractors.
Developing technologies to recycle ammunition and other explosive
material takes more time available in the usual one-year contract,
Wheeler said. Thus, the Army has begun awarding simplified, five-year
compacts, known as “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity,”
or IDIQ contracts. Since 1999, the Army has awarded a flurry of
such contracts to two teams, one headed by General Dynamics Ordnance
Systems, of Burlington, Vt., and another led by PB/Nammo Demil LLC,
of New York, a partnership of U.S. and Nordic companies.
In 2001, General Dynamics won a $9.8 million job in March, followed
by one for $11.7 million in August. Simultaneously, PB/Nammo received
awards for $10.7 million and $9.8 million.
The work is for the demilitarization of nine families of conventional
ammunition, including pyrotechnics, bombs, high-explosive cartridges,
improved conventional munitions, bulk propellants, fuzes and small-caliber
Both General Dynamics and PB/Nammo have assembled teams of subcontractors
to complete the jobs.
The General Dynamics team includes: General Atomics; Arrow Tech,
of South Burlington, Vt.; Hitech, in Camden, Ark.; ICI, in Joplin,
Mo.; Primex, of Marion, Ill.; TPL, in Albuquerque, N.M.; ESE, in
Salt Lake City; Alliant Techsystems, in Hopkins, Minn., and EBV,
PB/Nammo’s subcontractors include the Army’s McAlester
plant, plus: Crane Army Ammunition Activity, in Crane, Ind.; Tooele
Ammunition Depot, in Tooele, Utah; El Dorado Engineering Inc., in
Salt Lake City; Indiana Ordnance Works, in Charlestown, Ind., and
QuantiTech Inc., in Huntsville, Ala.
Although McAlister is a subcontractor in the PB/Nammo team, officials
at the Army plant last year complained to the Defense Department
inspector general that the service was contracting out demil work,
while the capacity for such work at its own ammunition plants is
underused. At the end of 2000, “the unused industrial capacity
of the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant was 86 percent,” according
to an audit by the inspector general.
Some of the contracts required ammunition to be shipped from the
service’s storage facilities in the United States to contractor
locations in Germany, Norway and Sweden, Army officials complained.
The audit of three Army facilities—McAlister; Rock Island
Arsenal, Ill., and Watervliet Arsenal, N.Y.—found that a recent
pilot program encouraging such plants to sell products and services
to contractors who provide weapons systems to the military services
“has been only minimally successful.”
From 1998, when the program began, to January of 2001, the three
facilities received only 12 contracts, valued at $6 million, according
to the audit. One of these was a five-year, $5.2 million job awarded
Nevertheless, the auditors recommended that the pilot program be
extended. They noted that Congress and the Army have been making
efforts to improve the program.
Also, the report said: “Overall, the pilot program is beneficial
to [the Defense Department] and the military industrial base. “The
[department] benefits, because the pilot program eliminates an impediment
to obtaining work for the Army industrial facilities. The military
industrial base benefits, because it can contract or partner directly
with an Army industrial facility for needed articles and services.”
Any increased work for the plants, the report noted, would use
idle capacity, reduce overhead costs and result in lower prices
to customers. “More importantly, the added work would aid
the retention of critical manufacturing skills that are being lost
because of the lack of work at the industrial facilities,”
the report said.
The war on terrorism is a major new complication for the demil
program. For one thing, money is being poured into paying for the
war, rather than routine defense operations, such as demil.
Another concern, after the terrorist attacks of last fall, is the
security of the stockpiles, said Wheeler. It is hard to protect,
because it is huge and spread out all over the country, he said.
“The size of the stockpile is about the same as the all of
the ammunition that we shipped to the Gulf War,” he said.
“It is a drain on our pipeline. It’s a vulnerability
to our force protection and a constant strain on our resources.
It’s a challenge that isn’t going to go away.”