Op-Ed: Finish the Job of Modernizing the Radford Army Ammunition Plant
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued February 10, 2009)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)

One of the most important lessons to emerge from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is the importance of a reliable and modern ammunition industrial base. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense allowed both its stockpiles of munitions and the ammunition industrial base that produced new products to atrophy.

The military thought this was an acceptable risk because it could not envision a future conflict with a lot of close combat, small unit operations and threats to its rear areas and supply lines. As a result, when it found itself involved in not one but two wars that required the expenditures of prodigious amounts of munitions, particularly small caliber ammunition, the military faced a crisis.

In 2001, there was only one facility in the United States capable of producing small caliber ammunition, the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LAAP), built at the start of World War II. After 9/11, as demand for small caliber ammunition went through the roof, LAAP increased its production from 300 million rounds a year to 1.2 billion rounds. A second source for this type of ammunition also was created to supply an additional 300 million rounds.

Also true in 2001, as it is today, there is only one facility in the United States capable of producing the basic constituent elements of military-grade explosives and propellants. This is the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RAAP) in southwestern Virginia, another World War II-era facility. RAAP is unique. It produces nitrocellulose, the key ingredient for all the propellants used in U.S. ammunition from 5.56mm small caliber rounds through the shells used in aircraft and helicopter cannons and the big rounds for U.S. tanks and artillery. Without RAAP, the United States would either have to spend billions recreating its capabilities or be totally dependent on foreign sources of supply.

Recognizing the potential danger posed by the antiquated state of the ammunition industrial base, the U.S. Army initiated a campaign to modernize its key facilities. At RAAP, the Army has spent millions to repair the aging infrastructure, improve the on-site power plant and build a new acid plant – a key ingredient in nitrocellulose.

Additional investments in RAAP are needed now. The Army has plans to spend millions of dollars more on other critical projects that would ensure RAAP’s continued production for decades to come. However, the Army is delaying spending the money pending the award of a new contract to a private company to manage RAAP. This process could take up to a year. In the present budget environment, these funds are at risk and so is the viability of the U.S. ammunition industrial base. The Army needs to take the necessary steps to spend the RAAP modernization money without waiting for a new contract to be awarded. This was done at LAAP. To do otherwise places the military’s supply of ammunition and the lives of the warfighters at unnecessary risk.

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