Replacing Spatulas With Robots at Army Ammo Plants

 In Land, China, Industry, Acquisition, & Innovation, Forces & Capabilities

WASHINGTON: The 11,000 work­ers at 14 Army-owned ammu­ni­tion plants, cen­ters and depots are often stuck using World War II tech­nol­o­gy when much safer alter­na­tives are avail­able, the Army’s chief acquisition official told Congress this after­noon.

On April 11th, 2017, 55-year-old Lawrence Bass was drying tetrazene – a vital com­po­nent of gun­pow­der primer – at the Army’s Lake City, Mo. ammu­ni­tion plant, using a hand­held spat­u­la to scoop up the explo­sive mix­ture, as he and his col­leagues had done for years. But this time, it explod­ed, killing Bass, injur­ing four others, and shut­ting down Lake City for months. Bass’s family later filed a $20 million lawsuit against the con­trac­tor that oper­at­ed the plant for the Army, Orbital ATK.

“Lawrence Bass’s death was tragic and should not have occurred,” Jette said under ques­tion­ing from Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, the subcommittee’s senior Republican, in whose dis­trict Bass lived. But also, the assis­tant sec­re­tary added, “his death is in fact a cat­a­lyst” for a long-over­due over­haul.

Key mate­ri­als are import­ed from China, Assistant Secretary Bruce Jette also acknowl­edged, and the loss of a single sup­pli­er — or an acci­dent at a single plant — could dis­rupt muni­tions deliv­er­ies not just to the U.S. Army but to the other mil­i­tary ser­vices as well.

“We lit­er­al­ly have people stand­ing in front of machines that are full of 1,500 pounds of molten explo­sive, drool­ing it into artillery shells to fill them up, and then they push the carts out of the way,” all by hand, Jette told the House Armed Services sub­com­mit­tee on AirLand Forces.  “We don’t have automa­tion. We don’t have robot­ic sys­tems.”

The Army and its con­trac­tors have worked for decades to make pro­ce­dures as safe as pos­si­ble, Jette said, – that is, as safe as pos­si­ble given the often-archa­ic equip­ment. But rad­i­cal­ly better alter­na­tives are tech­no­log­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble.

“He should have never been in such close prox­im­i­ty [to explo­sive mate­r­i­al],” said Jette. Workers should have a remote-con­trolled device to handle the tetrazene, instead of hand­held tools. “Should it [the explo­sion] have hap­pened with a machine, I can buy anoth­er machine,” Jette said.

Jette and the four-star chief of Army Materiel Command, Gen. Edward Daly, told the sub­com­mit­tee that the Army is cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing an in-depth review of poten­tial improve­ments in mul­ti­ple areas.

Worker safety is the No. 1 pri­or­i­ty, both men said. Three people have died at all Army-owned ammo facil­i­ties com­bined in the last 10 years, and only two were actu­al­ly work­ing with ammu­ni­tion – the third was a back­hoe oper­a­tor whose vehi­cle flipped into a pond. There’ve been many lesser injuries, and while most of them are acci­dents uncon­nect­ed to ammu­ni­tion like slips and falls, work­ing in anti­quat­ed facil­i­ties makes those mun­dane mishaps more likely, too.

So the ser­vice is will­ing to invest in robot­ics, automa­tion, and other upgrades – and retrain the work­force accord­ing­ly — to make the ammu­ni­tion indus­tri­al base both safer and more effi­cient. New man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­o­gy is also the only way to make new kinds of ammu­ni­tion, like the light­weight poly­mer cas­ings pro­posed by two of the three com­pa­nies com­pet­ing to build the 6.8 mm Next-Generation Squad Weapon. (The third NGSW com­peti­tor would stick with brass cas­ings, Jette said, which could be built on Lake City’s exist­ing lines with minor retool­ing).

The other big con­cern is secur­ing the ammu­ni­tion supply against poten­tial dis­rup­tions. All the ammu­ni­tion plants them­selves are owned by the Army; some are oper­at­ed by con­trac­tors, like Lake City, while others are run by the gov­ern­ment. But they rely on a wider net­work of sub­con­trac­tors, includ­ing at least 55 abroad. Some raw mate­ri­als for American muni­tions actu­al­ly come from China – in some cases simply because it’s cheap­er than alter­na­tives, in others because that’s the only source on the market.

Many of these chem­i­cals are pol­lu­tants, explo­sive, or both, so making them in the US would add cost and require com­plex sort­ing-out of envi­ron­men­tal and safety reg­u­la­tions. Army sci­en­tists are look­ing for alter­na­tives that might be safer, cheap­er, and more pow­er­ful, but that takes time.

Meanwhile, the Army is also look­ing for reli­able sources over­seas, in Canada, Mexico, or in over­seas allies like South Korea, which used to man­u­fac­ture 0.50 cal­iber machine­gun ammu­ni­tion for the US. It might be worth making some modest orders again to restart the rela­tion­ship and ensure the for­eign prod­uct meets US stan­dards, Jette said, with the option to ramp up pro­duc­tion when and if required – say if anoth­er source fell through or combat oper­a­tions demand­ed a surge in supply.

What would all this cost? That’s still unclear. The cur­rent long-term mod­ern­iza­tion plan calls for an addi­tion­al $14 to $16 bil­lion over the next 15 years, which would rough­ly double annual spend­ing. But that strat­e­gy is four years old. It was pub­lished in 2016, a year before Lawrence Bass was killed. The Army is now taking anoth­er look. That includes not only look­ing at new alter­na­tives but trim­ming the wish­list to the high­est pri­or­i­ties.

“I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think it’s going to be more expen­sive,” Gen. Daly. Said. “[It’ll be] a more focused invest­ment strat­e­gy.”

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