ChainMail | Short of Ammo

The surprising story of the U.S. military supply chain under stress

ChainMail | Short of Ammo

An American factory is getting attention, though not for anything new. The 115-year-old building in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which once repaired steam locomotives, manufactures something just as old school: artillery shells.

The Pentagon recently invited reporters to the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant to see how 155-millimeter rounds are made and hear a tale both impressive and worrisome. The plant is supporting Ukraine’s brave efforts to repel Russia by producing about 11,000 artillery shells a month. Awesome, but Ukraine is said to be firing as many as 6,000-7,000 shells a day. The U.S. military has delivered more than a million rounds of 155 mm ammunition to Ukraine, significantly shrinking the U.S. stockpile.

Welcome to another supply chain crisis. The United States, having survived COVID-19, is struggling to ramp up its peacetime defense industry to arm Ukraine, replenish its own reserves, and prepare for possible conflict with China. Besides using up 155 mm shells, Ukraine is burning through U.S. supplies of Stinger antiaircraft missiles (13 years’ worth of production) and Javelin missiles (five years’ worth). The U.S. also needs more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), among other weaponry, for itself and allies.

The problem isn’t money; the defense budget is $800 billion. The problem is bureaucratic decision-making and limited manufacturing flexibility. The Pentagon’s budgeting and acquisition procedures “are really long, very slow, very cumbersome, and very linear,” said analyst Stacie Pettyjohn. The military and its suppliers are structured to maintain broad deterrence through overwhelming might, not supply the largest ground war in Europe since World War II and gear up for a potential shooting war with China over Taiwan. 

A series of war games focused on a Taiwan Strait conflict determined the U.S. would likely run out of long-range precision-guided munitions in less than a week, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report. “The de­fense in­dus­trial base, in my judg­ment, is not pre­pared for the se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment that now ex­ists,” Seth Jones, who wrote the CSIS report, told The Wall Street Journal. He said the U.S. military-industrial complex as currently configured is “better suited to a peacetime environment.”

The defense industry underwent a significant consolidation after the Cold War, shrinking the number of aerospace and defense prime contractors from 51 to five, according to the Defense Department, which pushed for the contraction. Those companies plus hundreds of subcontractors, are still answerable to the Pentagon’s rigid purchasing requirements. They are in competition to develop new high-tech weapons systems and under constant financial pressure to operate efficiently.

Because all the U.S. defense momentum of the last two decades was focused on fighting insurgent wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the industry shifted priorities. So there’s plenty of incentive for companies to build precision bombs and drones, not churn out 20th century armaments for a rainy day.

“(The Ukraine) conflict has been an important wake-up call for decision-makers at the Pentagon,” analyst Martijn Rasser told The Financial Times. “What we’re looking at is the need for a new industrial policy for the defense industrial base.”

The Defense Department opened the Scranton plant’s doors to news organizations to prove it’s up to the task of defending the free world and to lobby for political support and increased funding. Before Ukraine, the Pentagon didn’t do multi-year orders for shells and other ammunition. That’s now changed. To deliver enough 155 mm shells, the U.S. is expanding the Scranton plant, which is run by General Dynamics, and increasing orders from a Canadian manufacturer. The Pentagon also plans to add an assembly line in Texas. The goal is to boost production to 90,000 rounds a month. But it’s going to take two years.

“In previous conflicts, we had stockpiles that were sufficient for the conflict,” Douglas Bush, the Army’s acquisition chief, said in an interview with The New York Times. “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.”

Read the complete Issue 30 of ChainMail here.

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