The Price of 155mm Ammo is Jumping

But it's not enough to interest the big manufacturers

As America’s commitments to allies and ideological friends across the world expands, so too will complaints about helping them with American military resources. One of the most common complaints concerns supplying Ukraine with weapons or ammunition, followed closely by complaints about supplying Israel with weapons or ammunition. Some say that we cannot afford to send this, as the U.S. needs it for ourselves to fight a war. Others don’t think we ought to send it because they oppose war, or support Russia or Hamas. Our ability to produce sufficient ammunition for all weapon systems to fight a world war is vital; today I reconsider the question of what we should be able to expect from our industry, and why.


The Price of 155mm Ammo is Jumping

But it’s still not enough to interest the big manufacturers

Some kids have trouble keeping patient during travel and I was one of them. I used to pester my parents about how far we were from the destination. “Are we there yet,” I’d ask, probably in a whiny or bored tone of voice. “Not yet,” they’d respond. This was in an era before laptops or smartphones, and reading used to make me carsick, so distractions were limited.

It’s rare that I get that kind of feeling as an adult. Bored, annoyed, staring out the window as abandoned factories, farmland, and housing tracts speed by on the side of the highway. I’ve had it recently about two subjects: the State Department’s apparent inability to effectively keep essential U.S. technology out of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese hands (serious question: what do these people do all day), and U.S. industry’s inability to manufacture more artillery ammunition.

An article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend offered a rare and important window into the latter process. What’s happening behind the scenes, apparently, is that prices have risen to the point where U.S. and European manufacturers are being sufficiently compensated for their efforts — from $2100 per round to $8400 per round in the case of 155mm HEDP, the standard 155 round — but are worried that if they ramp up production, they’ll need to lay people off on the back end five or 10 years from now when there’s no longer a need for a million rounds of ammo (or more) per year.

U.S. Soldiers prepare 155mm ammunition during a live fire exercise at Grafenwoehr, Germany Nov. 7, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Gertrud Zach, photo via DVIDS)

That’s a fair concern!

One answer to the potential problem of future downsizing is automation. As I reported from AUSA, the Turkish company REPKON can install nearly-fully automated production lines capable of producing however many rounds as one likes per month — 5k, 10k, more — rounds that rely on novel methods for fabrication, have fewer defects, and are more reliable.

Full or nearly-full automation comes with its own built-in downside, which is that there’s no political appetite for a giant robotic factory with no workers. The political argument for a factory in one’s congressional district or state is that it brings with it jobs — hundreds or, if the factory is big enough, thousands — capable of supporting entire communities. Without those jobs, at the local level, what’s the point of absorbing the pollution, hassle, and eyesore of a factory, and all the valid arguments against it?

Another recent piece, this one in War on the Rocks, talks about this problem from another perspective: that of the ruined submarine industrial base. The scale of the problem is different — and far more serious. But the essential problem is the same. After the Cold War, a massive and highly specialized work force was cut by 90% or more. Building out facilities will be difficult, but beyond that, the workers needed to crew production lines or perform repairs simply don’t exist, and won’t for months at the most basic level of proficiency, and years for the more advanced specialist work. Then — what are the companies supposed to do when the need for work ebbs again? Lay those workers off until the next war?

My feeling is that it’s worth investing in factories operated by well compensated human workers, and that there ought to be some guarantee that those workers won’t simply be cashiered after the crisis ends — that there will be some use for them and their skills when the need for 155mm HEDP artillery ammunition dips back down to 100,000 per year, and the need for submarines is no longer so great. After all, a submarine is not so different from a spacecraft, and there are more uses for explosives than war. Whatever the case, the need for manufacturing and industry is great, today, and we should be moving mountains to bridge the gap between industrialists and politicians.


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