Administrative issues may hamper US military ammunition production



  • The US military’s ammunition production process is facing “challenges”, according to a government watchdog.
  • Disorganization and bureaucracy issues can hamper that production, the GAO said in a report.
  • The problems are revealed as the Pentagon strives to increase its munitions production.

Disorganization and bureaucracy could hamper US military production of ammunition, according to a new report from a government watchdog.

That could spell trouble, as US arms shipments to Ukraine have depleted US military stockpiles and sent the Pentagon scrambling to ramp up production of artillery shells and other ammunition.

“The military faces challenges in managing the supply and production of conventional ammunition,” the Government Accountability Office warned in a study published in October.

The production of US military ammunition – including bullets, howitzer and mortar shells and small rockets – is overseen by the military.

Production is centralized at five factories in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia, which are government-owned but operated by private contractors, including General Dynamics and BAE. In 2021 – before the war in Ukraine – the military had a budget of $2.9 billion to procure conventional ammunition.

Army of Iowa munitions factory with 155mm artillery shells

Workers with 155mm artillery shells at the Iowa Army Munitions Plant in October 2020.

Joint Munitions Command

However, the production was complicated by multiple factors. For example, each factory has a different contract with different requirements. The contracts require operating contractors to pay for maintenance while the government funds any upgrades to the plant.

Unsurprisingly, Army officials told GAO that “difficulties in delineating what counts as maintenance and what counts as modernization can confuse which party is responsible for the costs.”

Nor does the government always get the wholesale discount it should. Some contracts use a price matrix tied to specific quantities.

“For example, if a round of ammunition costs 50 cents for orders between 100,000 and 200,000 units and 40 cents for orders between 200,001 and 300,000 units, an order for 200,000 rounds is not as profitable for the government than an order for 200,001 rounds,” the GAO noted.

However, an even greater complication is the blurring of responsibilities for multiple agencies, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Army Acquisitions and Materiel Command, Future Command, and Joint Ordnance Command.

.50 Caliber Bullets Lake City Army Ammunition Factory

Workers perform a .50 caliber inspection at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in June.

Joint Munitions Command/Dori Whipple

“Army organizations responsible for ammunition procurement and production lack clarity on roles and responsibilities,” the GAO said.

Ironically, while the military is often criticized for excessive paperwork, GAO auditors have found the lack of clear documentation to be a major impediment. Some key documents dividing responsibilities between the various organizations have not been revised for 20 years.

Only one of the five factories has a document that clearly describes roles and responsibilities. Attempts to clarify this have failed because “not all parties involved have yet been able to reach an agreement”.

To be clear, it seems that the problems are mainly administrative. “We have uncovered no evidence that would indicate a likely impact on the quantity or quality of munitions produced,” John Sawyer, GAO’s acting director for national security contracts and acquisitions, told Insider.

Nevertheless, the administrative pitfalls have real consequences. For example, poor coordination between two agencies “resulted in the military purchasing $2.8 million in equipment in 2020 that cannot perform the job it was purchased for,” the GAO noted.

rocket tube booster at Radford Army Munitions Factory

A worker inspects the rocket tube propellant at Radford Army Munitions Factory in May 2022.

Joint Munitions Command/Dori Whipple

Congress is pushing the military to modernize its internal industrial base, much of which dates back to World War II. The military responded with an ambitious $16 billion modernization plan that would not be completed until 2038.

But that doesn’t help much now, as Ukraine continues to spend massive amounts of ammunition. Ukrainian forces were firing 6,000 artillery shells a day in June, while Russia was firing perhaps 20,000 rounds a day.

The rapid delivery of emergency shipments to Ukraine has the Pentagon fearing that its own stockpiles of ammunition – which it may need for a conflict with China – are running low.

A recent US Army market survey to identify potential new ammunition manufacturers cited a production requirement of 12,000 155mm artillery shells per month. The problem is that even in factories already built and in operation, it can take more than a year to increase production.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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