At the recent Aspen Security Forum the USA National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the war in Ukraine is an artillery war. He said ‘I personally sit in my office every morning and spend thirty minutes on 155mm ammunition’.
It is clear that the risk taken to reduce US and European stockpiles has now impacted such that Mr Sullivan said at the same conference that one of the key reasons to supply Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM) projectiles, otherwise known as cluster bombs, to Ukraine was that the USA had run out of High Explosive (HE) rounds. The USA has been acquiring rounds from South Korea and Bulgaria. Whilst for the artillery nerds amongst us there are question of ‘qualification’ of the various rounds in the weapon systems in use in Ukraine and what is the level of supply of natures other than HE, the key issue here is that there is now an international effort to increase the manufacturing capacity for 155mm rounds in the USA and Europe.
In the USA the stated aim is to increase capacity from around 14,000 High Explosive rounds per month to 90,000 rounds per month as soon as possible. The European Union and NATO member states in Europe are funding an expansion of manufacturing capability. Nevertheless Mr Sullivan admitted that this will take time as he acknowledged that lead times for key materials and components – steel, forging, machining, explosives, propellants, igniters and fuzes – are long.
In July 2023 the UK responded with an announcement of a £280m order placed with BAE Systems. Most of the order, some £180m was designated as being for 155mm munitions with the rest being for 30mm and 5.56mm.
This is good news however it does raise some questions particularly around the UK’s strategy for 155mm in particular and the ammunition supply chain in general.
- Was the order for expanded manufacturing capability at the shell forging and machining facility and the Fill Assemble and Pack (FAP) facility?
- Did the order cover the actual supply of any rounds?
- If it did which rounds? The UK has recently switched its 155mm capability to the Archer weapon that comes with its own ammunition system.
- Is the order for Archer ammunition or is it for rounds compatible with US weapon systems for Ukraine?
- If it is for Archer ammunition, has a licence been put in place with the owners of the intellectual property. Also how does this impact the Mobile Fires Platform programme? Will the ammunition be compatible with the selected weapon? The experience of the AS90 Extended Range Ordnance / Modular Charge System (ERO/MCS) programme shows that separate programmes for the weapon and ammunition can contribute to failure.
- In any event given that the suppliers of explosive, propellant and fuzes are based in Europe and the USA how will UK secure capacity when other nations may be taking up most if not all of that capacity?
- Is some of the expenditure to expand capacity in the supply chain?
- Will explosive and propellant capacity be re-established in UK? If so how will it be sustained?
The UK has invested in world class forging and machining, FAP and Small Arms assembly facilities. The UK order or investment is no doubt part of a broader strategy that is not immediately clear from the press release, and perhaps its should not be. Nevertheless it would be encouraging, and reassuring, to see the UK approach to re establishing a resilient ammunition manufacturing capability as part of an integrated European strategy. At this distance the UK looks like a lone runner and that may not be the best place to be.