Replacing Spatulas With Robots at Army Ammo Plants
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.”