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The U.S. effort to arm Ukraine starts in Scranton, Pennsylvania

The war in Ukraine has led to a huge surge in U.S. ammunition production.

Cases of 155 mm shells loaded and ready for shipment in the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Located just off the recently-renamed Joseph R. Biden Expressway in the city where the president was born, the factory feels like a throwback to an earlier era of American heavy manufacturing and a time when this northeast Pennsylvania city was an industrial hub.

“This building tells the story of Scranton,” Richard Hansen, a Scranton native who serves as the factory’s top civilian employee, said while giving a tour to visiting reporters last week.

From a wide angle, image shows the factory from inside, with cases and cases of shells.
Shells are assembled in the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, a more than century old factory that once built steam locomotives, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Then came the war in Ukraine.

And it’s likely that many of the shells that are exploding and shattering into deadly shards of steel on the battlefields of Donetsk and Kherson were trucked off the factory floor in Scranton. Though officials at the plant wouldn’t specifically discuss where the shells they make are sent or their precise role in the war in Ukraine, Hansen, a Navy veteran himself, said that among the plant’s roughly 300 employees, many of whom are military veterans, “morale is very high. They understand what they do to support the warfighter.”

The speed of steel

“It works great. Why fix it?” says Hansen.

The process of making an individual shell takes around three days. Twenty-foot-long steel bars are cut with a robotic saw into 14-inch cylinders weighing around 110 pounds, which are then heated for an hour in a gas furnace until they emerge, glowing red, at a temperature of 2,000 degrees — hot enough to burn you hand off. In the process that follows, they are heated and cooled two more times as they are hollowed out, shaped, smoothed, painted and packed for shipping to another factory in Iowa. That’s where they are packed with explosives.

It’s a time- and labor-intensive process, with little room for error: A flaw of just a few millimeters could render a shell useless in a life-or-death battlefield situation. While the Scranton plant is undergoing a modernization effort that began prior to the recent production surge, most of the machines involved are decades-old and much of the work is done by hand. With around 300 employees, the plant runs for 24 hours, five days a week.

General Dynamics’ current contract, which runs until 2029, requires it to produce 11,040 shells per month. The company also produces the shells at a sister facility in nearby Wilkes-Barre. The production goals have been amended several times, but plant officials would not say by how much. Todd Smith, General Dynamics general manager for Northeast Pennsylvania, acknowledged that there have recently been more weekend overtime shifts at the plant and that they were looking ahead to an eventual seven-days-a-week schedule. “The intensity has gone up. Let’s just put it that way,” Smith said.

While the construction of the metal shell itself might seem like the simplest part of the process, Brig. Gen. John Reim, an Army executive officer focused on armaments and ammunition, told Grid that because of the labor and resources involved, it’s actually the toughest problem to solve from a logistics point of view.

“It’s a very niche capability, he said. “The limiting factor in the production of 155s is steel parts. We operate at the speed of steel.”

Ammunition shells come out of a furnace, in a bright red color.
Shells emerge from the furnace at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Steel surge

To solve the steel problem, Pentagon officials say the coming years are likely to see new investments at Scranton, including the possibility of new production lines for the 155 or other types of ammunition.

But that won’t be enough. “The way they initially increase the production numbers by doubling shifts and paying people overtime can only go so far,” Bradley Martin, director of the RAND Corporation’s National Security Supply Chain Institute, told Grid. “To really expand, they’re going to have to have to build more facilities, and they’re also going to have to hire more people to work in those facilities.”

In a recent roundtable with reporters, Bush described the recent production ramp up “as long as anyone around here can remember.”

Even with that ramp up, Brig. Gen. Reim anticipates it could be up to two years before production reaches the sixfold production increase the Pentagon is aiming for.

Production surges on this scale pose something of a philosophical question for the military-industrial complex. Defense contracts work on multiyear timetables. It’s not really possible to ramp up production of the 155-millimeter shell or another weapon and then shut it down again if the war in Ukraine were to end in the next few months. It’s also not economically feasible to keep paying for ammunition that no one is using just to keep factories open.

“What you really need is a sweet spot between not trying to buy everything and having enough capacity that you can realistically go to a surge level.” says Rand’s Martin. “What the demand for artillery looks like now and what it might look like in another type of war is another matter.”

So the military’s investment in building things like 155-milimeter shells is something of a bet that the future of warfare will look more like Ukraine than Iraq or Afghanistan.

“That’s something that we’re still looking at,” Brig. Gen. Reim told Grid. “How much of this capacity do we retain? How much do we keep for our surge capacity going forward? We’re looking very closely at some of the lessons being learned in Ukraine.”

Boom times for things that go boom

Armaments production is a rare industry that, for national security reasons, has to remain at least to a certain extent in the United States. But the overall decline in the American industrial base still has an impact; there are fewer workers with the necessary manufacturing skills than there were when the Scranton plant began operating. The armaments industry is also limited by the same worker shortages affecting the wider economy.

“Finding a younger workforce who wants to live where these things are being manufactured and trying to keep them around long enough to become skilled, that’s going to be a challenge,” said Rand’s Martin.

Smith, of General Dynamics, said finding enough qualified workers hasn’t been an issue in Scranton, where the armaments factory is a long-time presence, and many families have worked at the plant for generations. But he acknowledged it has been an issue in other parts of the country.

Brig. Gen. Reim said that the new production line being built in Garland, Texas, will be mostly automated, with human workers mostly just performing inspections. “What you saw [in Scranton] was very manual, very labor intensive. It’s kind of Korean War vintage,” he said. On the newer lines, he said, converting production from one type of ammunition to another becomes simply a “software change.”

But for now, the Scranton plant continues to slice, heat and shape steel rods into deadly weapons in much the way it has for decades.

“That’s what we do,” Hansen said. “We build things that kill people.” And for the foreseeable future, demand for those things is high.

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