At a time when precision strike warfare dominates U.S. military tactics and
strategy, the Army is facing a sobering reality: its ammunition stockpile is
becoming outdated and is woefully short of the modern “smart” munitions
needed for current and future conflicts, officials said.
The Army’s predicament is not new by any means, nor is it directly tied
to massive expenditures of ammunition in the war in Iraq. The problem is not
that the Army is running out of bullets, but rather that it has too much old
ammunition in its war reserves and not enough precision-guided munitions. Even
though the Army has numerous smart missiles in its inventory—such as Hellfire,
Javelin, TOW and the Tactical Missile System—it has failed to get into
production gun-fired guided munitions. A number of programs went through fits
and starts and ended up getting the budget ax before they could go into production.
“The Army needs ammunition, but lacks the resources,” said Col.
James Naughton, former deputy chief of staff for ammunition at the Army Materiel
Command. “It’s safe to predict that by 2010, most of the ammo we
have today will be unserviceable or of limited utility.”
Less than 6,000 tons of war reserve ammunition was produced last year. That
is only 1 percent of the Army’s requirement of 600,000 tons, Naughton
said in an interview. That has been the average production level during the
The Army’s budget for ammunition last year was about $1.2 billion. Although
the Army manages conventional ammunition programs for the entire Defense Department,
each service keeps its own separate budget.
“We do have war reserve ammunition in hand,” Naughton said. It
is not necessary to produce all 600,000 tons to get ready for war. But the Army
should be concerned that, unless production rates go up, the existing stockpile
will get too old and increasingly “suspect” when it comes to reliability
and performance, he said.
Not only is the Army not buying enough ammo, but it is spending most of its
ammunition dollars on training rounds, rather than war-fighting ammunition.
“What we are producing does not resemble, by any stretch of the imagination,
what we would like to shoot in a war,” said Naughton. Current annual production
of training ammunition is nearly 60,000 tons—10 times higher than the
production of war reserve ammo.
AMC estimated two years ago that the Army would need $16 billion to make up
for its conventional war reserve ammunition shortfall. Billions more would have
to be added for the smart munitions. Maj. Gen. William L. Bond, the deputy for
systems management at Army headquarters, wrote in Army Magazine that the “current
cost estimate to fix the Army munitions problem is approximately $26 billion.”
Ammunition accounts have been on a downslide for at least 15 years, so the
current situation should be no surprise to anyone, said Col. Nathaniel Sledge,
program manager for combat ammunition systems. “The Army has taken risks
in its munitions investments,” Sledge told a Defense News precision warfare
conference. He estimated that the Army would need $6 billion more worth of ammunition
to be able to fight in two conflicts (one major war and one low-scale contingency),
as stipulated under Pentagon strategy.
Some experts, meanwhile, contend that the Army often inflates its ammunition
requirements. One industry source said that projected ammunition needs are drawn
from war-games, which in some cases are based on flawed assumptions. Another
source said that the Army’s situation merely reflects the realities of
Pentagon budgets. During peacetime, “we don’t buy many of those
smart munitions. We divert the funding to platforms,” he said.
Naughton seemed skeptical about the prospect of higher budgets for ammunition.
“If the war in Iraq lasts a long time and stresses the ammunition stockpile,
then quite possibly we’ll see some rethinking of the problem,” he
said. Two weeks into the conflict, Congress approved a supplemental appropriation
of $3.7 billion to replenish munitions used by all the services. During peacetime,
however, ammunition generally is not a top priority in the budget process.
The Army’s heavy emphasis on procuring training ammunition at the expense
of war reserve rounds, meanwhile, has profound implications both for future
operations and for the industrial base, Naughton explained.
Having enough bullets for training is important, for obvious reasons. But training
ammo is different from the war-fighting ammo. Training tank rounds, for example,
are made of aluminum, rather than depleted uranium. DU bullets are environmental
hazards, so the Army does not use them in training exercises. The upshot is
that soldiers never get to fire the war reserve ammo until they actually go
to war. “They often have not seen that ammunition fired before,”
said Naughton. “In general, the behavior of the training ammunition when
fired is different than the war reserve. ... They load it and shoot it the same,
but the signature is different, the recoil is different, the noise is different.
It’s a different experience the first couple of times you shoot it.”
Because smart munitions are scarce and costly, “we don’t train
with precision weapons in any great numbers,” said Naughton.
Another consequence of the current buying strategy is that the industrial base
largely is producing training ammunition, not war reserve. Most of the tank
ammo made today is for training only, said Naughton. “You have to have
an industrial base that will create that war reserve ammunition. You will need
to buy that war reserve ammo steadily during peacetime.” The Army currently
lacks the resources to do that, he said. “We don’t seem to be able
to get the war reserve ammunition into production at a sustained, steady level.
... Instead, we do a little bit here, a little bit there, in very small quantities.”
Many of the components that are necessary to make war reserve ammo are not
in production, except cartridge case stubs and collapsible cartridge cases.
“Everything else is being produced just for the training ammunition and
is a different design and manufacturer than those for the war reserve,”
he said. If and when the Army decides to start buying war reserve ammunition,
there would likely be “short-term problems getting components that haven’t
been built in years.”
AMC estimated that there is only one supplier for 71 out of 302 “critical
components” needed for ammunition manufacturing.
It’s a reality of the business world that when the market dries up, vendors
flee. The ammunition sector is no exception. “We went from 20 fuze suppliers
to five in four years,” said Naughton. While there were seven missile
manufacturers less than a decade ago, there are now two. “The industrial
base will naturally size itself to what you are buying,” he said.
Army Industrial Base
The Army owns and operates several industrial facilities nationwide where ammunition
and parts can be manufactured, but much of the equipment is technologically
outdated. Some of the Army plants are managed by contractors. The secretary
of the Army is reviewing a study by a government-industry group on how to reshape
the ammunition industrial base to meet future needs. The Army must decide whether
to continue running those plants—and make the appropriate capital investments—or
to privatize them.
Regardless of what the Army decides to do with its industrial base, the fundamental
issue does not change: the Army needs to produce more war reserve ammunition,
Naughton said. Time is running out, he said. “Most of the ammunition in
the stockpile today was built 20 years ago during the Cold War buildup.”
Most rounds are designed to have a shelf life of 20 years. “We are outside
the envelope of the shelf life on 40 percent or more of our existing ammunition.
The rest is rapidly approaching the end of its shelf life.”
Ammunition does not “go bad” overnight, after it reaches a certain
age, but “once it’s over 20 years old, the reliability rapidly degrades,”
said Naughton. Within a few years, it will become increasingly difficult to
shoot it. “You can predict that you’ll lose 7-8 percent of the ammo
after the 20-year mark.”
To replace the obsolete rounds, the Army would have to produce 100,000 tons
of war reserve ammunition a year for the next seven years. Past that point,
it would need 50,000 tons to 60,000 tons a year to sustain the stockpile. That
represents about “half the level of the Cold War buildup,” he said.
Those who question whether the United States really needs that much ammunition
pose legitimate concerns, Naughton said. “These are national-level decisions”
that require answers to key questions, such as, “Has the world changed?
Which way has it changed? What risks are we going to take?”
As far as smart munitions go, the Army has a lot of catching-up to do, Naughton
said. “We have a challenge with any kind of smart weapons program.”
Historically, the Army has not been able to keep programs alive. Examples include
the Sense-and-Destroy anti-tank munition, the Brilliant anti-tank munition,
the MSTAR guided rocket and the TOW fire-and-forget missile, all of which were
cancelled “You have to build a constituency and the program has to last
long enough to get it into production.”
The biggest hurdle for the Army is coming to grips with the high cost of precision-guided
ammunition. “People go into sticker shock,” said Naughton. While
a conventional tank bullet may cost $2,000 a copy with a production run of less
than 1 million, a smart munition may cost $20,000 or $30,000 apiece, but the
production runs would be much smaller.
“With missiles, we do a better job at curtailing our appetite for the
munitions by keeping the requirements small. ... Yet, the result is that the
unit price is higher. Longbow Hellfire is over $150,000 a piece.”
Even though the prices of missiles can be staggering, “we seem to be
more successful at convincing ourselves we need the missile, as opposed to gun-launched
A retired Army general who managed munitions program said the culture stands
in the way of innovation. “There is a mindset that precision-guided munitions
will replace conventional ammo.” That will never happen, he said, because
the Army always will need unguided ammunition. “There is no concept of
operations that articulates how smart and dumb ammunition can be used together.”
That makes the cost of smart ammo prohibitive.
Seeking to preempt an ammunition crisis, the Army’s deputy chief of staff
for programs has developed a “strategy for the transformation of Army
munitions,” Bond wrote in Army Magazine. “To address the problem
of reduced production and increased costs, the strategy [emphasizes the use
of] common components to increase production quantities ... [such as] fuzes,
propellant, guidance systems, submunitions and warheads.” The idea is
to “achieve the economies of scale that were previously available only
with the large procurement quantities associated with dumb munitions,”
The Air Force also anticipates future problems in ammunition production. Current
manufacturing capabilities may not be suitable to “rapidly respond to
a surge request,” said Air Force Col. Pamela Arias, commander of the armament
product directorate at Eglin Air Force Base. “The new environment will
call for a mix of weapons that we don’t have to have in large inventories,”
she said. The ideal situation would be to “simply go back to the contractor
and they can quickly reconfigure a production line for a particular item. ...
If we could move in that direction, it would be easier for companies to not
carry quite as much overhead and excess capacity.”