The U.S. military has assembled the most sophisticated fighting arsenal in the world with satellite-guided weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles that shoot Hellfire missiles. But as billions of dollars have poured into the technology for futuristic warfare, the government has fallen behind on more mundane needs -- such as bullets.
The protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and heightened combat training with live ammunition have left the military short of small-caliber bullets. To offset the squeeze, the Army is taking unusual stopgap measures such as buying ammunition from Britain and Israel. It is also working to increase domestic production.
Alliant Techsystems Inc. runs the U.S. military's primary ammunition plant. It will manufacture 1.2 billion rounds this year.
(Courtesy Of Alliant Techsystems Inc.)
Rising Demand The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and training requirements are cutting into U.S. bullet supplies.
"The big complex programs don't do any good if there aren't bullets for the rifles," said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a research group based in the District.
Shortages in basic battlefield gear struck soon after the start of the Iraq war, when combat forces outfitted in high-tech uniforms ran short of body armor and armored Humvees. The tight supplies of bullets reflect a shutdown of factories in recent years and the unexpected level of resistance in Iraq, industry analysts said. The Army relies on one plant for its small-caliber ammunition, sharply limiting its options.
The Army estimates that it will need 1.5 billion rounds of small ammunition this year for M-16s and other rifles, triple the amount produced in 2001. The primary U.S. military supplier is the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, a government-owned facility run by Alliant Techsystems Inc. It will manufacture 1.2 billion rounds this year. "To fill that gap, we had to do some things rather quickly," said Brig. Gen. Paul Izzo, the Army's program executive officer for ammunition.
The military has a stockpile of 1 billion rounds but resists dipping into it except for extraordinary emergencies. "We have a good-sized stockpile" that we keep as "our trump card," Izzo said.
Alliant aims to boost production to 1.5 billion rounds a year, but it is not expected to reach that target for another year. In the meantime, the Army has turned to alternate suppliers. In June, it bought about 130 million rounds from Britain's stockpile. In December, it awarded contracts to Israeli Military Industries Ltd., based in Ramat Hasharon, and Winchester Ammunition, a unit of Conn.-based Olin Corp., to produce 70 million rounds each of 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition.
The military will begin moving away from those temporary suppliers next year when it expects to hire a second small ammunition maker to provide 300 million rounds a year on a long-term basis to supplement output at the Lake City plant in Independence, Mo. Alliant is expected to face competition for the contract from Falls Church-based General Dynamics, which already makes large-caliber ammunition.
A second supplier will give the military the ability to quickly accelerate production if needed, Izzo said. "I am responsible for making sure we have an industrial base that is flexible and responsive," he said.
U.S. bullet production has dwindled to just the Lake City plant from five factories that turned out small ammunition during the Vietnam War. "In essence the Army underestimated what its future ammunition needs might be," said Loren B. Thompson, defense consultant for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington think tank.