Now in its seventy eighth year of production, the BAE Systems small arms ammunitions factory at Radway Green, Cheshire really is delight to behold if, as I do, you appreciate state-of-the-art facilities that have been designed to achieve efficiency and create world leading capability, competitive product and that lay the grounds for further medium and long term growth.
Highly invested and having won significant work from France, Sweden, Poland and other foreign governments through the quality of its design capability, product and competitive approach, one of the most interesting aspects that I learned when I visited the Radway Green site near Crewe recently was that ammunition that emanates from the site is also used as the international benchmark for weapons and ammunition testing.
Without doubt a considered world leader in the volume production of small arms ammunition, BAE Systems Radway Green operation is may be best observed as being that of a process of continual evolvement.
Originally known as Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) No 13 when established to produce .303 ammunition back in 1940, the Radway Green site, together with the larger element of what was then known as Royal Ordnance plc, was acquired by BAE Systems in 1987. There followed a difficult period that witnessed considerable fluctuations in demand for small arms ammunition and with UK armed force numbers also being continually scaled back over the past thirty years, what became a too long period of falling demand required urgent action.
Even so, while some other elements of Royal Ordnance activity was to be seriously scaled back BAE Systems through the 1990’s and various plants being closed, the company decided that even though the amount of work for the MOD had probably been scaled back on a permanent basis that the best future for Radway Green would be to for the unit to increase the amount of export business. To that end, BAE Systems well knew that in order to achieve growth and to match or be better than international competition would require that the company invest in state-of-the–art manufacturing and production technology. That is exactly what subsequently occurred and it reasons why today the Light Munitions operation at Radway Green is such a successful unit in the BAE Systems portfolio today.
Following the award of the Munitions Acquisition Supply Solutions (MASS) contract from the MOD in 2008, a 15 year award that, I might add, fully recognised the need for long-term and sustainable on-shore munitions manufacturing capability in the UK, BAE Systems launched a £206 million drive to overhaul three of its principle munitions plants. Of this, £83 million of the transformation project would be allocated to Radway Green and this was primarily aimed at establishing a UK and indeed, international centre of excellence for small arms ammunition design and production. To that end, new facilities for the production of 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunitions were formally opened in 2014 by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal and since then, much of the old Radway Green site that many will remember has, due to the modern process of manufacturing requiring far less labour, have been either cleared and sold.
Another example of a ‘Whole Force’ approach to the need for an agile and cost effective supply solution response by industry and that is able to meet the immediate and long term needs of military and future training requirement, the MASS partnering agreement with the MOD committed BAE Systems and the MOD to work together to improve the acquisition of general munitions and move away from the previous ad-hoc basis of ordering. One of the main aims was to secure long-term security of supply, freedom of action and research and development for general munitions in the UK whilst reducing the overall cost and improving delivery. In 2016 the MASS agreement was repriced to take into account continued cost improvement and alignment of operating needs.
Producing around 120 million rounds of ammunition a year with just 307 employees together with sales of around £24 million, the improvement in efficiency that has been estimated to be in the region of 20% plus is a quite remarkable achievement. The investment has certainly more than paid off and today, Radway Green produces Ball, Tracer, Blank and Sniper elements of 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition capability together with various other light weight ammunition rounds. If required, in respect of machinery, the facility has the capacity to produce no less than 236 million rounds a year on a two shift systems basis.
While small arms ammunition design may not look that much different than it perhaps did seventy years ago the reality is that in detail, material, achievability scale and process, it is very different to how it was back then.
With soldiers being much better protected with the likes of Kevlar and other forms of protective materials and equipment, some of which includes the use of Titanium, small arms equipment and the ammunition fired by it has needed to keep up with development and change. This has, over time, led to technology improvements specifically related to materials used within the ammunition, including casing design together with gun powder itself.
The bottom line is that compared to ammunition that I had personally used on firing ranges back in the 1960’s, small arms ammunition produced today at Radway Green goes faster, further and can be directed far more accurately that it ever was before. It also produces significantly less flash meaning that today it doesn’t so easily give away the firing soldiers position.
Lighter is always better in this field of professionalism and this is something that has not been lost in small arms ammunition development. Suffice to say that because it is continually being enhanced by emerging operational requirements, ammunition produced at Radway Green for the UK armed forces today sets the standard and is regarded as being world leading capability.
As already alluded, the Radway Green BAE Systems site currently produces the 7.62mm High Performance round, a bullet that can penetrate 3.5mm steel armour at a range of 1,000m and also, the 5.56mm enhanced performance round which I am told can produce a similar change in capability through its ability to increase range by around one third against an armoured target.
The modern purpose built factory designed throughout on the basis of safety and worker protection is a delight to see. Light and efficient, perhaps the only link to the past might be the pleasant hum of activity and the small noise of end product casings dropping into containers. Brightly lit throughout, the production process is very largely fully automated. When complete, each and every round of ammunition produced is automatically checked on nine digital cameras and lasers that if I understand correctly, take ten separate measurements at the rate of 250 rounds per minute.
CHW (London – 4th April 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785