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 US 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 US Army’s production of 14,400 unguided shells a month had been sufficient for the 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 US 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 mm shells for howitzers, but also guided rockets for HIMARS launchers, thousands of antiaircraft and antitank 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.
The unguided shells currently in production are just under 3 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 1 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.
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 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 mm shells at a factory in Garland, Texas.
A fourth domestic producer of 155 mm shell bodies will probably be announced soon, Bush said.
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.