Pentagon opens munitions factory to keep weapons flowing to Ukraine

In a warehouse off the Lyndon B. Johnson Highway, in an industrial area outside Dallas, the future of American military munitions production is coming online.

Here, at the Pentagon’s first major weapons plant built since Russia invaded Ukraine, Turkish workers in orange helmets are busy unpacking wooden boxes stamped with the name Repkon, an Istanbul-based defense company, and assembling robots and lathes. computer controlled.

The factory will soon produce some 30,000 steel shells each month for the 155-millimeter howitzers that have become crucial to kyiv’s war effort.

Ukraine fired between 4,000 and 7,000 such projectiles daily for several months in 2023, according to NATO’s secretary general, before infighting among House Republicans delayed additional funding for Pentagon weapons shipments. . Large shipments of U.S. artillery munitions resumed in April after Congress approved an aid package that included $61 billion for Ukraine.

The breach caused a drastic ammunition shortage in kyiv, and Ukrainian troops were only able to fire a fraction of the projectiles fired at them by Russian forces.

To keep Ukraine’s artillery teams supplied, the Pentagon last year set a production goal of 100,000 rounds per month by the end of 2025. Factories in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, together make about 36,000 rounds per month. General Dynamics’ new facility in Mesquite, Texas, will produce 30,000 units each month once it reaches full capacity.

The goal of 100,000 units per month represents an almost tenfold increase in production compared to a few years ago.

An Ohio-based defense company called IMT is expected to make up the difference. .

Less than a year ago, the surrounding area here in North Texas was just a dirt field. But with millions of dollars from Congress and help from Repkon, American defense company General Dynamics was able to open the factory about 10 months after starting.

“Despite all of our starts and stops with the government, continued resolutions and getting the latest add-ons, the industrial base responds when it’s funded and done right,” said William A. LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official. , in an interview with his Army counterpart, Douglas R. Bush.

According to LaPlante, the United States has provided more than three million 155-millimeter shells to kyiv since the war began in February 2022.

“When government and industry work together and Congress gives us enough freedom, we can still do great things in this country very quickly,” Bush added.

However, it is unknown whether the increase in artillery ammunition production alone will be enough to change battlefield outcomes in Ukraine’s favor.

“The steady increase in artillery munitions production is significant for the long-term needs of the United States and Ukraine,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “but even in the best-case scenario “I would say that those production targets for the end of 2025 will come late in this war, and Russian artillery production will likely still be greater than that of the United States and Europe combined at that time.”

“Let’s say that within a year and a half both the United States and Europe will be manufacturing or purchasing more than a million projectiles each,” he added. “It’s probably less than what Russia is going to produce this year.”

The Mesquite factory will consist of three production lines in different buildings, one of which will share space with a Frito-Lay distribution center that had a Cheetos brand truck parked outside. When the three lines are completed, most of the Turkish workers will return home.

Half of the American workforce at the site came from another General Dynamics plant about 10 miles north in Garland, where the company forges steel casings for aerial bombs. The Mesquite factory will add about 350 jobs to the local economy when it reaches full production capacity next year, company officials said.

It can take days to forge projectiles at current military factories in Pennsylvania, which use a combination of new and nearly centuries-old technologies to heat and press steel billets into conical projectiles. But the new plant in Mesquite spins much faster.

The shorter response time comes from using something called flow forming: a machine inside an enclosure about the size of a city bus spins a 130-pound steel cup at high speed while simultaneously squeezing it until it snaps. turns into a long, shiny cylinder. From there, robots do much of the remaining work.

A series of identical orange robotic arms spread throughout the factory grab metal parts from a machine’s projectiles and place them on small automated carts that carry them to the next station, where another robotic gripper that slides along A clue begins the next stage of the process. process.

The work area of ​​each robot is fenced and its openings are flanked by an “air gate,” a strip of sensors that allow Roomba-type carts to enter but turn off the machines if they detect a human.

It takes humans a few steps to lift things along the way, often with a large yellow device bolted to the floor called a manipulator that allows them to move projectiles to other machines.

Laser scanners have replaced human eyes and hand tools to inspect projectiles inside and out, quickly verifying that projectiles are within desired specifications.

Once finished, the empty shells made in Mesquite will be sent to the Army’s only facility to be filled with explosives: a World War II-era plant in Burlington, Iowa. Next year, however, many of the shells They will be shipped to another new General Dynamics factory under construction in Camden, Arkansas.

The Pentagon’s push to reinvest in ammunition production will also result in the Army plant in Iowa opening a second line to fill projectiles with explosives, and the partial reopening of a plant in Parsons, Kansas, to package propellant charges of artillery that was largely closed in a round of base closures in the 2000s.

Once completed, an unguided projectile will be just under three feet long and weigh approximately 100 pounds, of which 24 pounds will be its explosive filler. That’s enough to kill people within 150 feet of impact and cause injuries more than 400 feet away.

Both LaPlante and Bush indicated that European countries were also increasing their production of artillery munitions, and that American defense contractors are in talks with the Ukrainian government to find ways to help Ukraine bolster its own national defense industry.

The United States has transferred sensitive manufacturing plans for more than 1,000 American weapons to kyiv and translated an equal number of technical manuals from English to Ukrainian, the two officials said.

When asked, they did not say what weapons.

“What do you use the most?” Mr. Bush responded.

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