WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is racing to increase its artillery shell production by 500% within two years, pushing conventional ammunition production to levels not seen since the Korean War as it invests billions of dollars to compensate for deficits caused by the war in Ukraine and to build up reserves for future conflicts.
The effort, which will involve expanding factories and bringing in new producers, is part of “the most aggressive modernization effort in nearly 40 years” for the U.S. defense industrial base, according to a report from the ‘army.
The new investment in artillery production is partly a concession to reality: while the Pentagon has focused on wars with a small number of more expensive precision-guided weapons, Ukraine relies heavily on howitzers firing unguided shells.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the US Army’s monthly production of 14,400 unguided shells was sufficient for the US Army’s mode of warfare. But the need to supply Kyiv’s armed forces prompted Pentagon leaders to triple production targets in September, then double them again in January so they could eventually produce 90,000 or more shells a month.
Unguided artillery shells have become a cornerstone of the 11-month-old conflict, with Ukrainian and Russian troops firing thousands of shells at each other every day, along a front line more than 600 miles long. These weapons are most likely responsible for the largest percentage of war casualties, which US officials have estimated at over 100,000 on each side.
The military’s decision to increase its artillery production is the clearest sign that the United States plans to support Ukraine no matter how long the war lasts.
The ammunition that the United States has sent to Ukraine includes not only 155 millimeter shells for howitzers, but also guided rockets for HIMARS launchers, thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and more than 100 million rounds of light weapons.
The howitzer shells currently in production – essentially large steel bullets filled with explosives – cannot be made as quickly as many consumer goods. Although the way they are constructed is slowly changing with increased automation and new technologies, the heart of the process – cutting, heating, forging and bending steel into shape – remains largely unchanged.
The Department of Defense will fund new facilities to manufacture artillery ammunition and will spend approximately $1 billion per year over the next 15 years to upgrade government-owned ammunition production facilities with the aim of increasing the automation, improve worker safety and ultimately produce munitions faster. Since August, Congress has allocated $1.9 billion to the military for this effort.
“We are really working very closely with industry to both increase their capacity and also the speed at which they are able to produce,” Christine Wormuth, secretary of the army, said last month, adding that this includes the identifying “particular components that are sort of bottlenecks” and “sourcing to try to be able to get things done faster”.
Douglas R Bushan assistant secretary of the army who is the service’s most senior procurement official said the United States is one of the few countries that maintains significant stockpiles of such weapons in both wartime and peacetime.
“In previous conflicts, we had enough stock for the conflict,” Bush said in an interview. “In this case, we are looking to increase production both to maintain our stock for another eventuality, but also to provide an ally.”
“So it’s a bit of a new situation,” he added.
The unguided shells currently in production are just under three feet long, weigh around 100 pounds and are packed with 24 pounds of explosives – enough to kill people within 150 feet of impact and injure exposed soldiers. over 400 feet.
So far, the United States has sent more than a million explosive projectiles to Ukraine, while other NATO countries and major non-NATO allies of the United States have also provided shells, largely without disclosing the number.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the size of its stockpiles of 155mm shells, but Bush said planned increases in production would meet Ukraine’s real-time needs and replenish the amount taken from existing stockpiles. .
“We’re going to start seeing our first significant milestone in terms of turns per month this summer,” he said of hull production targets. “The ramp really hits its stride in fiscal year 2024.”
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While the new investment in the country’s munitions factories will offer a significant boost in production, it is still only a fraction of the manufacturing capacity the army mustered in the 1940s.
At the end of World War II, the United States had about 85 munitions factories, according to one Congress report from late last year. Today, the Pentagon relies on six government-owned and contractor-operated army ammunition factories do most of this work.
The Army’s munitions infrastructure “is made up of facilities with an average age of over 80 years”, and much of it is still operating in “buildings dating from World War II, and in some cases, with equipment of the same period”, according to the army’s report on the modernization of these facilities, which was written in 2021.
Representative Rob Wittman, a Republican of Virginia and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the invasion of Ukraine was a “Sputnik” moment – referring to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite into space – which clearly indicated the need for this rapid expansion of ammunition manufacturing capacity in the United States.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has really exposed how shaky and fragile our supply chain is, especially when it comes to ammunition, which is now clearly some sort of emergency in terms of trial resupply. “, Mr. Wittman said this month, during remarks. in front of a group of senior Pentagon officials.
Artillery ammunition production in the United States is a complicated process that takes place primarily at four government-owned facilities operated by private defense contractors. The hollow steel bodies are forged in factories in pennsylvania managed by General Dynamics, the explosives in these shells are mixed by BAE Systems workers in Tennessee then poured into the shells at a factory run by American Ordnance in rural Iowawhile propellant charges to fire them out of howitzer barrels are made by BAE in southwestern Virginia.
The fuzes screwed into the nose of these shells, which are needed to detonate the projectiles, are made by subcontractors in other locations.
In November, the army announced a $391 million contract with the Ontario company IMT Defense to manufacture shell bodies and gave an order to General Dynamics to build a new production line for 155 millimeter shells at a factory in Garland, Texas.
A fourth domestic producer of 155-millimeter shell bodies will likely be announced soon, Bush said.
All of this increased production will likely be utilized as quickly as it can be shipped to the Ukrainian border by US Transportation Command.
The Ukrainians have fired so many artillery barrages that about a third of the 155 millimeter howitzers supplied by the United States and other Western countries are out of service for repair.
The Pentagon has also purchased ammunition for the Soviet-era weapons that Ukraine possessed before the invasion and which still constitute a large part of its arsenal: 100,000 rounds of Russian-made tank ammunition, 65,000 rounds of artillery and 50,000 Grad artillery rockets. .
This ammunition is still produced in limited numbers in some of the former Soviet Union satellite countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
“We’re not talking about numbers that would move the dial significantly,” Bush said. “These types of options have been and are being evaluated.”
“The priority has been to supply standard NATO ammunition,” he said. “It largely depends on what Ukraine wants.”
As the war dragged on, Russian forces found they could not sustain the high levels of artillery fire they used to outmaneuver Ukrainian gun crews over the summer. In September, according to US intelligence, Russia was looking to buy artillery shells from North Korea, which still uses Soviet-caliber weapons. The following month, Ukrainian troops near the city of Kherson reported that Russia’s rate of fire had fallen to about the same level as theirs.
In December, an American defense intelligence analyst who was not authorized to speak publicly said that reports from Russia indicated that the Moscow government had ordered employees of munitions factories to work overtime in the goal of producing more ammunition that Russian forces would use in Ukraine, including artillery ammunition.
The experience in Ukraine has served as a strong reminder to the Pentagon and military contractors that the United States needs to focus more on basic artillery and missiles — not just the expensive equipment needed to fire those weapons.
Most militaries are focused on buying just enough weapons for short-term conflict, Gregory Hayes, chief executive of Raytheon Technologies, said last month during a conference in California with Pentagon leaders. referring to the F-35 stealth fighters his company helps build. and which were sold to the United States and many of its allies. “I think what the situation in Ukraine has taught us is that we need depth in our supply chain, depth in our war reserves, much more than we expected.”