Turks and Chinese, Help us Make the Ammunition

(The title of this post was inspired by a WWII song:  Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition)

WSJ has an article about a new artillery-shell factory in Texas, which is run by General Dynamics.  The plant makes 155mm shells and is part of an effort to increase the US output of these items from 30,000/month to 100,000/month.

The plant is highly automated:

Walking past new hydraulic presses and orange robots handling semifinished artillery shells, U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth had a question for a manufacturing company executive.

“Do the Russians have this technology?” Wormuth asked Ibrahim Kulekci, chief executive of the Turkish firm that designed and installed key machinery in the plant.  

Kulekci said they wouldn’t get it from his firm. “Keep it that way,” Wormuth responded.

The Turkish firm, Repkon, supplies the heavy presses used to form the steel, which no US-based vendor could provide in the required time frame.  I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr Kulekci’s statement…but what if his government decides differently at some point?  Even if we already have the presses here in the US, what if we need further expansion?  How effectively can we continue to operate the existing presses if product support and spare parts from the vendor are cut off?

These are not imaginary issues.  During the Gulf War, a Swiss company, Swatch AG, and its Micro Crystal division refused to send key components used in the bomb guidance equipment used on the JDAM missile–it’s not clear whether the company was acting on its own initiative or at the direction of the Swiss government. And in 1939, the French licensed the design of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (the engine that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane, among other airplane) and contracted with the Ford Motor Company to manufacture these engines.

But when war was declared on September 3 of that year, Henry Ford–who had strong neutrality and ‘antiwar’ beliefs–pulled the Ford equipment and people. No Merlins for you, Mr Frenchman!

I find it interesting that Secretary of the Army Wormuth asked about Russia rather than China, or about both.  And speaking of China:  the robots in the plant are made by a German company called Kuka…which has been owned (since 2016) by the Chinese appliance maker Midea.  Again, what if Midea should decide, with a little encouragement from their government, that they aren’t interested in selling these robots to the US anymore, or indeed supporting the ones that they have already sold?

It may well be that General Dynamics management had no realistic alternative to these sourcing decisions given the time frames required.  But the US has gotten itself into a situation where almost any sustained military operation can be significantly impeded by decisions of non-US countries and companies to cut off critical components required to make munitions, aircraft, or other key items.

I’m reminded of the UK’s shell crisis of 1915, which led to the appointment of David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, and, shortly thereafter, his election as Prime Minister, replacing Asquith.

We need serious action to improve defense supply chain resilience, and it needs to be focused on actual results, rather than just wildly handing out money for favored political constituencies.  It strikes me that maybe Doug Burgum would be a good man to head up such an effort.

I’m also reminded of a Kipling poem:

Batteries Out of Ammunition

If any mourn us in the workshop, say
We died because the shift kept holiday

17 thoughts on “Turks and Chinese, Help us Make the Ammunition”

  1. “We need serious action to improve defense supply chain resilience, and it needs to be focused on actual results, rather than just wildly handing out money for favored political constituencies.”

    How long will such serious action take? — given that we are talking not only about building factories and training workforces; we are also talking about re-opening mines and processing plants to extract the elements needed for anything more complex than a bullet. It is a big challenge — for example, a recent analysis showed there are something like 1,500 Chinese companies making electronics for the US military.

    My guess, based on the time for re-industrialization of Japan & Germany after the total destruction of WWII (which is comparable to the sorry state afflicting the former Arsenal of Democracy today) would be at least 20 years — and that is assuming the first action would be to fire all the lawyers and shut down all the NGOs that would otherwise tie those projects up for decades.

    It would seem that the smart course of action would be avoid getting into any fights for the next couple of decades, while the industrial capacity is being rebuilt. Give Peace A Chance!

  2. Forget China and Russia for the moment and think about Turkey. They are not any sort of reliable ally. What happens if some of those shells end up going to Israel? All of those machines, not just the robots have a big enough software component to be permanently disabled with an “update”. For that matter, Turkey is much closer to Russia than to us now days. Maybe we need to think twice before we let any of them go to Ukraine either.

  3. We do indeed need serious action to improve defense supply chain resilience.

    It won’t happen under the present regime.

    Even this highly automated factory built with foreign help is only happening because the narrative requires a headline exclaiming that more artillery shells are being produced- production is tripling!!!

    But this isn’t nearly enough to matter for the Ukraine war from what I’ve read elsewhere the production isn’t scheduled to reach 100k per month until 2028.

    I typed that and decided to check. The very first link I turned up was this story, which says right in the first sentence that production is tripling. Guess I was correct on how this would be framed. Link:

    https://www.defenseone.com/business/2024/04/goal-100k-artillery-shells-month-sight-army-says/396047/

    Anyway, I also found this editorial by a retired Major General about nitrocellulose production, or rather the lack of it.

    https://breakingdefense.com/2024/05/to-counter-china-the-us-must-strengthen-ammunition-production/

    I especially note this lengthy quote:

    US policymakers must prioritize nitrocellulose production and munitions inputs if we hope to maintain our military superiority and our ability to support our allies. The challenge is two-fold: First, to bolster domestic production and, secondly, to shore up export controls. Both require improved production here at home.

    To the first point, this year Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., introduced the Ammunition Supply Chain Act. This legislation would require the Executive Branch to report to Congress on domestic smokeless gunpowder supplies, including nitrocellulose — an important first step to understanding US production capabilities and what’s necessary to enhance them.

    The obvious implication here is that the regime is doing nothing at all to actually increase US nitrocellulose production and as usual the Gee Ohh Peeee is taking a symbolic action that will accomplish nothing at all, even if enacted, which it won’t be.

    I’m mentioning nitrocellulose because I happened to hear a podcast that noted that there was only one US plant producing this product and it supplied both the military and civilian markets for ammunition, so you civilians should expect shortages and higher prices, at best.

    One US plant producing a vital component for ammunition- I know where I’d send a hypersonic cruise missile if I were Russia or China or etc.

    Niall Ferguson is correct. The sort of idiocy exemplified in the present day United States is very much like that of the USSR, just before it collapsed.

  4. Gavin…”avoid getting into any fights for the next couple of decades, while the industrial capacity is being rebuilt” Unfortunately, we don’t & won’ always have a choice.

    Elon Musk was able to create products in two major and very physical industries–automotive and space…with much more speed than conventional companies would have required. Can’t imagine why Musk, or any of a number of American robotics companies, wouldn’t have been able to create robots as good as the ones supplied by the Germans/Chinese. Heavy presses probably a more difficult problem, but not impossible.

    re government and other bureaucracy-created delays, what’s needed is the kind of courageous leadership demonstrated by General Bernard Schriever, who ran the USAF ballistic missile program. There’s a very interesting biography of Schriever, who I reviewed quite a while back: A Fiery Peace in a Cold War.
    https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/24503.html

  5. There are starting to be more defense-oriented startups, such as Anduril:

    https://www.anduril.com/

    …Peter Thiel is looking at making a $1.5 billion investment in this company.

    Startups are likely to be much more oriented and able to do things rapidly than established defense companies…in the Schriever book, the author notes that the general supported the creation of Ramo-Wooldridge (later TRW) as systems integrator for the overall project, rather than entrusting this role to one of the established airframe companies such as Convair.

  6. The necessary crash-rearmament is a matter of incentives, management and political will. It is not a matter of technology, the availability of resources, or of the nominal capabilities of current industry players. Musk, if he is willing, would be a good person to involve. There are probably plenty of other high-functioning American business people who could perform well here. Today’s politicians and bureaucrats, OTOH, are probably not well suited.

  7. I think the points above re: establishing supply-chain resilience for our defense industry are well-founded. The basic supply-chain tree for many high-end products go back through many levels and countries and David’s post mentioned it wouldn’t take much, say US support for an ally, to have parts of that chain blocked

    The main problems are operational. It’s not just that we have allowed our industrial plant to wither, but also our trained workforce. A few years ago there was a lot of hoopla regarding TSMC building a chip foundry in the Phoenix area, but that project was delayed by lack of US talent. Even if we radically expand shipyard capacity, we simply lack the talent to adequately staff an expansion. By shutting down our industrial plant we basically cut off the development of the skilled talent pipeline

    One unremarked consequence of the expansion of the Russian and Chinese influence in the Global South is to potentially weaken our supply chain resilience for material sourced there. So in addition to material and labor issue you’re going to have add a political risk-factor

    I agree with that this won’t happen under the current administration or even current regime, we need a radical rethink from an operations perspective in order to develop the plant and people. Unfortunately the parallel to this is the “Green New Deal” initiatives that created pie-in-the sky thinking about fast new technologies could be developed and built. Even with the “climate emergency” of imminent death there wasn’t the political will to address core issues including bureaucratic red tape. Even with the understanding that we need more domestically-produced STEM talent there isn’t the will to reform (I mean raze to the ground and rebuild) the educational system to produce

    I like the suggestion of getting people with the mindset of Schriever involved. There is an opportunity here, akin to the post-Sputnik world, of a radical rethink of how we approach things; the moment meets the man. One of the results of the Blob’s efforts to cast Trump into the fiery depths is that the man holds no loyalties to the status quo, I have been tracking stories in the media re: “Project 2025”, not like I need anymore incentive to vote for Trump, but sounds like he’s the man for the job. Guys like Musk, Sacks, and Thiel have already been ostracized, how about bring them and some other radical rethinkers (aka winners)on board?

    Trump shouldn’t just talk up a radical revamp but can paint the need for a radical rethink and point to our astronauts who are stranded in space thanks to Boeing. Make America Win Again (MAWA)

  8. Mike: “Even with the understanding that we need more domestically-produced STEM talent there isn’t the will to reform (I mean raze to the ground and rebuild) the educational system to produce”

    Well said! And absolutely vital! Unfortunately, that is the kind of action that would require decades, even generational change.

    Assume that the entire UniParty and all the teachers’ unions and the tenured faculties of the universities have been eliminated overnight — now where do we get teachers who will focus on their students learning instead of being indoctrinated? First we have to train those better teachers — and where do we get both those who will teach the teachers and those who will become the new teachers? Then we have to raise a new generation of students. Next, those students have to get real-world experience in producing things in order to become competent — and competitive with countries like China & Russia.

    It would take a very long time to dig ourselves out of the hole we have allowed to be created. And no man on a white horse is going to do it alone. It would require broad-based long-term commitment from the bulk of the population. In short, it is not going to happen — at least, not until after the Coming Collapse.

  9. A somewhat parallel condition occurs in the case of the non-Titanium supplied to aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. Both were supplied deficient Titanium, and I expect used it on construction of their products.
    How did that happen? They required and received ‘certificates of compliance’ or ‘of purity’ in the material supplied, but what did they do to confirm the quantity/quality of the alloy?
    Something is wrong when a supplier can supply inferior material used in such relatively important tasks such as airframe manufacture and not be found out until later.
    A firm that may still be in existence on Hendee St, springfield supplied steel wrapped hoses for high pressure uses in military aircraft. Some on the production line wanted to ship without performing the pressure tests to the 100% level required by the contract. The only way the purchaser would know would be the result of a failure… in an aircraft at some altitude. Memory says my dad informed others that the tests would be done as required without taking shortcuts. I have no idea how that was enforced. Later a T56( maker regularly stopped the clock on the last day of the month to insure their product was shipped ‘on time’.
    Somehow any and all apparently will take shortcuts and skip testing even when it involves super/sub sonic airplanes and helicopters. I have the impression it was all a matter of character whether these tests and performing up to contract standards would be complied with. China does not have the record of demonstrating that, and Boeing/Airbus should have known that from the first shipment received. I think penalty clauses that were suicidal to the corporation on failure to comply might be effective, but don’t know any that would engage. One missile mfg in Denver had such, and a failure of one rocket would result in a unsustainable economic loss in the 1970’s, putting them out of business.
    The plant building J57’s in the former Dodge Chicago plant produced so well that bonus pay was greater than salary. I was a kid, so J57 could be wrong, but it was for the B-52s of the late 1950s.

  10. I’m reading a book about the aircraft carriers built on cruiser hulls in WW2. The Essex class were taking too long and so, opposed by Navy brass, FDR authorized conversion of an entire class of light cruisers to aircraft carriers. They were not ideal but they worked. The book is about the war diary of The “Cowpens”, a CVL (Light).

    We once could do those things. America had a whole generation of kids who could make things work. Eisenhower credited an Army sergeant with the success of the Normandy campaign. He was the one who built a cowcatcher-like device to mount on the front of tanks to breach the hedgerows. They quickly copied it by the hundreds. I don’t know if the game players have any useful skills.

  11. tommy w: “How did that happen? They required and received ‘certificates of compliance’ or ‘of purity’ in the material supplied …”

    We can rest assured that when the aircraft left the Airbus factory or the Boeing factory, the paperwork was in perfect order — because that is what is important in our litigious lawyer-dominated society. We see the same thing in medicine — people dying unnecessarily, but all the paperwork has been filed correctly. If we want our society to survive, Big Law will have to be cut down to size and put back in its proper place.

  12. David, I see you beat me to the punch on Sal’s post

    When I first saw Hicks’ announcement I did a spit-take because it smelled of an operations-grade Powerpoint deck like the various management fads of the past 30 years or the past 40 years of how technology was going to revolutionize K-12; however, now the fad is AI and drones.

    The problem with all those initiatives is that that you are counting on the same organization that has screwed up the past how many years to suddenly and smartly roll out the cutting-edge. It smells of desperation to cover up a degraded military capability. The reason the Navy has a ship-count problem that it for 30 years is in part tried to roll-out the cutting-edge in hulls and weapons, from electromagnetic catapults to PAC-3s, and has been unable to execute. Then again where’s the money going to come from? What part of the budget are you going to cannibalize? Why do I think it’s going to be out of creating greater magazine depth and not say, eliminating DEI (though that doesn’t have enough of a budget line)?

    The two keys to running new initiatives through the Pentagon is with 1) Keep it small with enough political protection that it can get its footing, proof of concept (as with Maven) or 2) You have the civilian level of the org chart focused laser-like on pushing a few initiatives through. Well what happened? They spent that time, energy, and political capital on DEI which is about the only thing the Administration seems to care about when it comes to innovation. It takes 4 years to build a Burke-class, we’re going to pretty much fight with the ships we have and not only cannot we produce enough magazine depth but what missiles we are producing are going to Ukraine.

    Don’t get me wrong, AI-enabled drone swarms will be what we want in the future, but by the time such a system is deployed they will be celebrating Mao’s birthday in Taipei. When I see things like Hellscape I see a PR stunt by an administration that has run our of gas, not somebody who has a plan to fight a war with what we have

    I like David’s idea of getting VP Burgum to start up a task force next January, lets get Thiel, Elon, and some others on board. Maybe ask Elon and some others who we can raid from their companies to place in Asst Sec Def and Deputy Asst positions.

  13. Mike: “AI-enabled drone swarms will be what we want in the future”

    No need to wait for the future. We could beg China to sell them to us now — as many freshly-printed dollar bills as they want!

    For anyone who still harbors delusions about US tech primacy, check out this video of a Chinese drone swarm flying through a bamboo forest. It does not matter who invents the technology, what matters is who applies it first and best. That used to be the US, but now we have DIE and lawyers instead of factories and skilled workers.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPul9WKQ6oQ

  14. Good article and comments about armament production. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

    It would be good to complement this goal with a Washingtonian/Trumpian avoidance of foreign entanglements, as well as heeding Eisenhower’s warning about the Military Industrial Complex.

  15. “No need to wait for the future. We could beg China to sell them to us now — as many freshly-printed dollar bills as they want!”

    No need to get them from China, the Ukrainians are building 10,000 a month in a small country with a war ongoing. They’re building everything from “racing” drones, capable of chasing down the garden tractors the Russians use for last mile transport to individual soldiers and delivering hand grenade sized payloads, to fixed wing drones capable of flying hundreds of miles against anything worth hitting. Ukraine, so far, does without the questionable advantage of AI by having a generous supply of trained operators (not pilots) on the front lines and a desperation inspired willingness to try anything that may work.

    Not to worry, DARPA has six designs in the pipeline and plans to have test flights in a couple of years. How much you want to bet that any one of them costs less than 10 times what the most expensive Ukrainian drone does. Actually, I’ll be surprised if any of the designs can survive being passed around the generals with each adding just this one little thing or, at least, will be smaller than an A380.

    What the Pentagon is in denial about is drone defense. Shooting down $1,000 drones with $1,000,000 missiles can only go on so long. You don’t need a drone capable of firing a $100,000 air to air missile when you can drop a $10 mortar bomb on a plane on the tarmac and even fly into a revetment to do it. You don’t need stealth when the drones are already so small, slow and low that most radar can’t even see them. When they can be built from cheap materials that naturally don’t return radar in the first place and the lawn mower engines of the biggest produce a minuscule heat signature. Finally, they’re so cheap that a few getting shot down doesn’t matter, a few will get through.

    The real problem is all the Pentagon rice bowls at stake. The pilots don’t want anything to fly without them. The cannon cockers have a problem with anyone but them directing fire missions without going through their tubes. And they all have a problem with anything that might divert any precious money from any of their bright shinny things. Remember, we went into WWII with a whole bunch of officers worried about where we would get re-mounts for the Calvary.

  16. The Western media love to republish dubious Zelensky-regime handouts about how good a job they are doing. It is tough to know what is real and what is merely propaganda to keep that sweet flow of Western taxpayer money coming. The Ukrainians do appear to be making some progress with drones — not as good as the Iranians or the Chinese, but progress all the same. However, they also appear to be steadily slowly falling back in the field. Even if Ukrainian drones really are ruling the skies, it is not helping them enough.

    Undoubtedly, drone warfare is the big new thing that has emerged from the conflict in the Donbas. The history of warfare has always been an advance and a counter. Someone invents the sword — someone else invents the shield. Someone invents the castle — someone else invents the battering ram. If the US Congressional-Military-Contractor nexus had its act together, the focus would not be on trying to catch up with Iranian drones; instead it would be on inventing the drone-killer. It could be as simple as an ElectroMagneticPulse weapon that causes the drones to fall out the sky, or it could be something much more subtle.

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