WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is racing to boost its production of artillery shells by 500 percent within two years, pushing conventional ammunition production to levels not seen since the Korean War as it invests billions of dollars to make up for shortfalls caused by the war in Ukraine and to build up stockpiles 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 an Army report.
The new investment in artillery production is in part a concession to reality: While the Pentagon has focused on fighting wars with small numbers of more expensive precision-guided weapons, Ukraine is largely relying on howitzers firing unguided shells.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the U.S. Army’s production of 14,400 unguided shells a month had been sufficient for the American military’s way of war. But the need to supply Kyiv’s armed forces prompted Pentagon leaders to triple production goals in September, and then double them again in January so that they could eventually make 90,000 or more shells a month.
Unguided artillery shells have become the cornerstone of the 11-month-old conflict, with both Ukrainian and Russian troops firing thousands of howitzer rounds at each other every day, along a front line more than 600 miles long. These weapons are most likely responsible for the greatest percentage of war casualties, which U.S. officials have estimated at more than 100,000 on each side.
The Army’s decision to expand its artillery production is the clearest sign yet that the United States plans to back Ukraine no matter how long the war continues.
The ammunition the United States has sent to Ukraine includes not just the 155-millimeter shells for howitzers, but also guided rockets for HIMARS launchers, thousands of antiaircraft and anti-tank missiles and more than 100 million rounds for small arms.
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 built is slowly changing with increasing automation and newer technologies, the heart of the process — cutting, heating, forging and bending steel into shape — remains largely unchanged.
The Defense Department will fund new facilities to make artillery ammunition and is spending roughly $1 billion a year over the next 15 years to modernize government-owned ordnance production facilities in an effort to increase automation, improve worker safety and ultimately make munitions more quickly. Just since August, Congress has allocated $1.9 billion to the Army for the effort.
“We are really working closely with industry to both increase their capacity and also the speed at which they’re able to produce,” Christine Wormuth, the secretary of the Army, said last month, adding that this includes identifying “particular components that are sort of choke points” and “sourcing those to try to be able to move things more quickly.”
Douglas R. Bush, an assistant secretary of the Army who is the service’s top acquisition official, said the United States is one of just a handful of countries that maintains significant reserves of such weapons in times of war and peace alike.
“In previous conflicts, we had stockpiles that were sufficient for the conflict,” Mr. Bush said in an interview. “In this case, we’re seeking to increase production to both maintain our stockpile for some other contingency but also supply 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 roughly 100 pounds and are filled with 24 pounds of explosives — enough to kill people within 150 feet of impact and injure exposed soldiers more than 400 feet away.
So far the United States has sent more than one million of the explosive projectiles to Ukraine, while other NATO countries and major non-NATO allies of the United States have also contributed shells, largely without disclosing how many.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on the size of its reserves of 155-millimeter shells, but Mr. Bush said the planned increases in production would support Ukraine’s needs in real time and replenish the amount drawn down from existing stocks.
“We’re going to start seeing this summer our first significant step up in terms of rounds per month,” he said of the shell production goals. “The ramp really hits its stride in fiscal year 2024.”
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While the new investment in the nation’s ammunition plants will offer a significant boost in production, it is still just a fraction of the manufacturing capacity that the military mustered in the 1940s.
By the end of World War II, the United States had about 85 ammunition plants, according to a congressional report from late last year. Today, the Pentagon relies on six government-owned, contractor-operated Army ammunition plants to do most of this work.
The military’s ammunition infrastructure “is comprised of installations with an average age of more than 80 years,” and much of it still operates in “World War II-era buildings, and in some cases, with equipment from the same period,” according to the Army’s report on modernizing those facilities, which was drafted in 2021.
Representative Rob Wittman, Republican of Virginia and a 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 — that made clear the need for this rapid expansion in ammunition manufacturing capacity in the United States.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has really exposed how brittle and fragile our supply chain is, particularly as it relates to munitions, which is now clearly kind of an emergency in terms of trying to replenish,” Mr. Wittman said this month, during remarks before a group of top Pentagon officials.
The production of artillery ammunition in the United States is a complicated process that primarily takes place in four government-owned facilities run by private defense contractors. The empty steel bodies are forged in factories in Pennsylvania run by General Dynamics, the explosives for those shells are mixed together by BAE Systems workers in Tennessee and then poured into the shells at a plant run by American Ordnance in rural Iowa, while the propellant charges to shoot them out of howitzer barrels are made by BAE in southwest Virginia.
The fuzes screwed into the nose of these shells, which are required to make the projectiles explode, are produced by contractors in other locations.
In November, the Army announced a $391 million contract with the Ontario-based company IMT Defense to make shell bodies and issued 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 probably be announced soon, Mr. Bush said.
All of this increased production is likely to be used as quickly as it can be shipped to Ukraine’s border by U.S. Transportation Command.
The Ukrainians have been firing so many artillery barrages that about a third of the 155-millimeter howitzers provided by the United States and other Western nations are out of commission for repairs.
The Pentagon has also bought ammunition for the Soviet-era weapons that Ukraine had before the invasion and that still make up a large part of its arsenal: 100,000 rounds of ammunition for Russian-made tanks, 65,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 50,000 Grad artillery rockets.
Those munitions are still being produced in limited numbers in some of the former satellite nations of the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe.
“We’re not talking numbers that would dramatically move the dial,” Mr. Bush said. “Those kinds of options have been and are being evaluated.”
“The priority has been on providing NATO’s standard ammunition,” he said. “A lot of it, though, depends on what Ukraine wants.”
As the war dragged on, Russian forces found that they could not sustain the high levels of artillery fire they used to overmatch Ukrainian gun crews over the summer. By September, according to U.S. intelligence services, Russia was seeking to purchase artillery shells from North Korea, which still uses Soviet-caliber weapons. The next month, Ukrainian troops near the city of Kherson said Russia’s rate of fire had fallen to roughly the same as theirs.
In December, a U.S. defense intelligence analyst who was not authorized to speak publicly said reports from Russia indicated that the government in Moscow had ordered employees at munition plants to work additional hours in an effort to produce more ordnance for Russian forces to use in Ukraine, including artillery ammunition.
The experience in Ukraine has broadly reminded the Pentagon and military contractors that the United States needs to focus more on both basic artillery and missiles — not just the expensive equipment needed to fire these weapons.
Most militaries are focused on buying just enough weapons for short-term conflicts, Gregory Hayes, the chief executive of Raytheon Technologies, said last month at a conference in California with Pentagon leaders, referring to the stealthy F-35 fighters that his company helps build and that have been sold to the United States and many of its allies. “I think, if anything, what the Ukraine situation has taught us is that we need depth in our supply chain, depth in our war reserves, much more than we had ever expected.”