CORRECTION - A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the method explosives like tritonal are mixed. Explosives are mixed in steam heated kettles.
McALESTER, Okla. — Many of the U.S. Army’s ammunition plants, arsenals and depots, mostly constructed in World War II, are time capsules of the era. The service has tried to update these wartime facilities, but there is much left to do to bring them into the 21st century.
McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma is dotted with shrub-cloaked ammunition bunkers built around 1943 and resembling Hobbit-holes. Old covered bridges that extend from external break rooms to manufacturing facilities across roads loom overhead but are now closed because of the presence of asbestos.
Since WWII, trains have carried in supplies and carted out ammunition in cargo containers. The Army has worked to update rail gauges and train cars to keep shipments moving on time, day and night.
Long, dark tunnels connect one facility for painting and prepping bomb shells to another where explosives are loaded into those rounds. A robotic arm spray-paints the outside of a shell in one facility.
But this automated capability isn’t available for the nuances of mixing explosives or filling shells, Brig. Gen. Gavin Gardner, commander of Joint Munitions Command, told Defense News on a tour of the ammunition plant’s production line for the Mark 82, a 500-pound bomb used by the Air Force. Operators still manually mix explosives — like tritonal, which is 80% TNT and 20% aluminum powder — using steam heated kettles, then adding it to the weapon mostly by hand.
Defense News accompanied Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on a trip to the plant last month.
Parts of the facility that manufacture these bombs recently received upgrades, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, including the integration of brand-new machinery. The plant was tasked to mass manufacture hand sanitizer on the Mark 82 production line before the equipment was ever used to build weapons because it was clean and could be configured to do the job.
More upgrades are expected in 2023, including an Air Force-funded multipurpose loading facility that is partly unmanned and keeps the bombs underground encased in deep concrete when being loaded for blast protection.
McAlester supplies one-third of munitions for the Defense Department and is considered the premier bomb- and warhead-loading facility, delivering thousands of Mark 84 2,000-pound bombs, M11 artillery rounds and 105mm artillery rounds, to name a few.
But McAlester is just one of several critical ammunition plants and depots that make up the DoD’s organic industrial base — and modernization is needed across the board.
State of the base
The Army’s organic industrial base is made up of 23 depots, arsenals and ammunition plants. And more than 19,000 facilities manufacture, rebuild, maintain or store equipment, supported by more than 32,000 skilled artisans and technicians.
Since 2009, the Army invested more than $5 billion to upgrade facilities, infrastructure, and operations equipment, but the service acknowledges a more focused investment plan is needed.
Congress has taken a particular interest in modernizing the organic industrial base over the last several years, having held hearings on the subject since at least 2020 and supplying the Pentagon with funding to bring aging facilities into the 21st century — making them safer and more efficient.
“ ‘Shocking’ is not overstating the condition of some of our facilities,” Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, said during a hearing last month. “The production progress, the tooling facilities are all operating much like they did during the Second World War.”
In the last two National Defense Authorization Acts, Norcross noted, Congress supported the Army’s baseline budget and its unfunded priorities to cover the cost of modernization plans.
“That was meant to kick-start the process of upgrading, modernization, and safe and efficient production of conventional ammunition,” he said. But he’s concerned the Army did not include adequate funding in its fiscal 2023 budget request to cover the costs of modernizing its industrial base facilities.
The service has a three-phase plan, which will require an estimated $16 billion investment, with more than $8 billion to upgrade ammunition sites, Gen. Edward Daly, who leads Army Materiel Command, told the subcommittee.
Plan of action
“Critical to modernization efforts are minimizing human exposure to hazards through robotics and remote operating processes, seeking to reduce single points of failure and dependence on foreign suppliers, and building capacity and capability to support the Army and the joint force as we move into the future, all while sunsetting and divesting of legacy equipment, facilities and processes,” Daly said.
According to the Army’s organic industrial base implementation plan, the service will focus on five lines of effort — facilities; tooling and processes; workforce; network and cyber; and energy and environment — across three, five-year phases stretching from FY24 through FY38.
The 15-year plan, obtained by Defense News, is aimed at posturing to support enduring and modernized systems, ensuring the ability to surge production, reducing single points of failure, identifying and mitigating supply chain vulnerabilities, reducing dependence on foreign suppliers and retiring legacy equipment and excess capacities.
The Army plans to modernize its facilities through the adoption of agile industrial processes, process improvement with sustainable utilities and resilient data infrastructure. The service will develop an “interconnected network of machine and sensors” that can gather data and analyze the information to streamline manufacturing, optimize production and generate surge capacity, the plan stated.
The workforce will need to be trained and developed to become artisans in a modernized infrastructure, the Army acknowledged.
The service also cites a need to use modern industrial standards, such as higher levels of automation and data exchange, which will require updating information technology and operational technology systems to make them more secure from cyberattacks.
The plan is geared toward ensuring facilities are climate resilient and that they efficiently use energy and other resources, such as water.
From FY23 to FY28, the Army’s projects will help build the foundation for 21st century capabilities, according to the plan. “The first phase focuses on building secure industrial control networks, leveraging robotics with computer program logic [and improving] workforce safety,” the document stated.
This includes building an optimized component remanufacturing facility and installing an industrial control network at Anniston Army Depot in Alabama; building a modernized powertrain facility for enduring platforms and to support future vertical lift aircraft when they come online at Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas; and building a “one-way luminescence ammunition facility” for more efficient tracer production at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Missouri.
Other facilities will be built and upgrades made to Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee; Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia; Red River Army Depot in Texas; Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania; and Watervliet Arsenal in New York.
In the second phase, from FY28-FY32, the Army will continue to build capabilities while addressing vulnerabilities. Projects include a consolidated combat vehicle assembly at Anniston; modernized pyrotechnic production at the Crane Army Ammunition plant in Indiana; future precision fires remanufacturing and the construction of a modernized and adaptive joint missile maintenance facility at Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania; and an upgraded primer mix house complex for Lake City.
At the end of this phase, “the Army will have a workforce postured to capitalize on the increased use of modern technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and data analytics,” according to the plan.
In the final phase stretching from FY32 to FY38, the Army will maintain and sustain its investments in a modernized organic industrial base. Corpus Christi will get a new aircraft remanufacturing facility; Letterkenny will get a Future Precision Fires Remanufacturing Complex; and Red River will get command-and-control and emerging-services facilities.
Also in this phase, the Army will provide Tooele Army Depot in Utah with accredited microgrids for energy resilience; Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas will get a multi-spectrum obscurant production upgrade; and the Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center in Illinois will receive upgrades in aluminum and titanium casting and forging.
By the end of this phase, the Army will have “a technologically advanced infrastructure that leverages data, analytics, and process automation as its foundation, with a safer workforce employed in more energy and cyber resilient industrial processes,” according to the plan.
Staying on track
Throughout the process, the Army will use a comprehensive database visualization tool and master plan repository it is calling Vulcan, which will validate and synchronize hundreds of projects.
“Vulcan hosts vast amounts of detailed planning and budgetary data supporting 2500+ modernization projects planned and budgeted,” the document read. “Vulcan provides full-spectrum visualization capabilities for modernization — macro to micro — and it accurately links all projects to their transformation strategy, planned location, funding type and weapon system(s) to be supported.”
The tool will reside in the Army’s Vantage system, a data-driven operations and decision-making platform, the document notes.
“By merging the millions of data points contained in Vulcan into the Vantage environment, it can take full advantage of the Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) capable applications available to improve and accelerate decisions on everything from major construction, human capital and personnel readiness as well as Return on Investment (ROI) for each dollar spent on modernization,” the plan read.
The Army believes its plan to spend slightly more than $1 billion annually is cost-neutral and sustainable.
“However, this operationalized approach to modernization is contingent upon sufficient, predictable, sustainable and timely funding to ensure a successful outcome,” the document warned.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.