Production is Meeting War Requirements, But Modernization Still Lacking
The Army has managed during the past five years to replenish small-caliber ammunition stocks that had shrunk during the 1990s.
A shortage of small caliber ammunition during the first years of the Iraq war prompted the Army to quickly ramp up production through a number of public/private partnerships.
“The demand for small-caliber ammunition has increased four-fold,” said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
In the first few years of the conflict, “individual weapons qualifications and specialized advanced training had to be curtailed because of the shortage of small caliber ammunition,” Goure said.
The deficit was underscored by a significant decline of the munitions industry following the Cold War, when overall capacity decreased by 68 percent, Goure said. The number of privately owned facilities fell from 163 to 69.
“Initially, there was a serious lack of ammo for training. A couple times we couldn’t get any at all,” said Army Col. Al Kelly, commander of the 17th Infantry Regiment, in an interview with National Defense.
There were some “spot shortages” in training, admitted Bob Kowalski, product manager for small and medium ammo at the Army research, development and engineering center in Picatinny, N.J.
To build up production, the Army turned to Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the company that runs the government’s largest — and only — small caliber facility in Independence, Miss. called Lake City. The partnership between the Army and ATK first began in 1999. At that time, the plant was producing 350 million rounds of small caliber ammo per year. The facility makes 5.56 mm rounds, 7.62 mm, 20mm, and .50 cal.
Between 2000 and 2004, the Defense Department’s purchases of small caliber ammunition increased from 350 million rounds to approximately 1.2 billion rounds per year, Goure noted.
Currently, the plant is pumping out 1.6 billion rounds of ammo each year.
Because only 70 percent of the floor space is being used right now, there is room to grow, said Karen Davies, president of the Lake City plant. The facility comprises more than 500 buildings and almost 4,000 acres. Since the ramp-up, ATK has added 1,700 additional employees at Lake City, for a total of 2,300 workers.
Lake City is the nation’s largest small caliber facility as well as the only U.S. manufacturing plant that makes ammunition links for small arms. A company called Valentec, which went out of business before the turn of the century, previously made links. ATK bought Valentec’s machines and has since grown the link capability to keep up with increasing production.
Responding to war needs, the military has signed other public/private agreements for small caliber munitions.
In 2005, a second source contract was awarded to General Dynamics to make 300 to 500 million rounds per year in addition to Lake City production, Kowalski said. The program executive office for ammunition wanted a second source for “risk diversification,” Goure said. Before the General Dynamics contract, the Army bought ammo overseas, but those contracts ended in early 2006, said Kowalski.
The service has succeeded in meeting the near-term needs of the military, but experts worry about the lack of technical innovation and modernization.
Lake City still relies on old machines, old recipes and old computers, Goure said.
“It still has the same computer system from the 70s and 80s vintage, and you can imagine what kind of challenge we have to maintain that,” Davies told lawmakers.
“There’s an 80 year-old guy who comes in for software problems,” Goure said.
Kowalski admitted to some deficiencies. “We have to put in new software systems and controllers and that is ongoing right now,” he said.
In three years, ATK Lake City has received more than $45 million in modernization money from Congress. But the war has slowed efforts to upgrade technologies, said Frank Hanzl, project manager at the Army research, development and engineering center.
“The program for modernization is difficult and complex because we’re at record high production mixed with the upgrades,” said Lt. Col. Eric Fletcher, product manager at the Army research, development and engineering center.
Some of the equipment looks like it’s from the 17th century, Goure quipped. “There are big vats where ingredients are mixed and no money for new ones.”
”We build very high quality ammunition at Lake City, but we build a lot of it on 1940s equipment,” Davies said.
The Army wants to develop more environmentally friendly types of gun rounds, but there is no money, Goure asserted.
The Army research, engineering and development center started using a “greener” material for small-caliber ammo in 2001 made of a tungsten-tin or tungsten-nylon mix. But production was stopped after 80 million rounds were made because of “problems in the field,” Kowalski said.
The Army recognized that there is less focus on research and development but argues that is because the main concern is providing enough ammo to fight the war. “All investment is to meet the needs of the soldier,” Kowalski said.
Operational needs are being met and the reserves are fully stocked, he said.
Although there’s enough money for increased ammo production, it is insufficient for new technology, Goure said. “The Army is thinking short term, year to year.” In fiscal year 2008, the service requested for ammo procurement $3.8 billion and $4.1 billion for fiscal year 2009. “There might be more in fiscal year 2009, but then it might start to dip,” Goure said.
The Army has acknowledged that funding could be a problem. “There is concern for that bullwhip effect,” where a high surge capability is followed by a drop in funding, said Matt Butler, project manager at the Army research, development and engineering command. Butler said there is a plan to keep production going after the war, but said the acquisition strategy is up to the Army’s senior leaders.
“In the last five decades, we have spent money on tanks, artillery, bombs, missiles, etc., but much less on small arms for soldiers,” Goure said. The industrial base “will not stay healthy on its own. Before Iraq, we didn’t modernize, we didn’t know we would need ammo … Iraq taught them that they needed more for the war and for training.”
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