How a Texas factory will become a key ammo supplier for the U.S., Ukraine

Complex machines at a General Dynamics facility in Mesquite, Texas, make ammunition more efficiently.
Complex machines at a General Dynamics facility in Mesquite, Texas, make ammunition more efficiently.

Summary

A General Dynamics facility slated to make artillery shells is part of the Pentagon’s $6 billion push to produce more munitions domestically.

MESQUITE, Texas—Walking past new hydraulic presses and orange robots handling semi-finished artillery shells, U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth had a question for a manufacturing company executive.

“Do the Russians have this technology?" Wormuth asked Ibrahim Kulekci, chief executive of the Turkish firm that designed and installed key machinery in the plant.

Kulekci said they wouldn’t get it from his firm. “Keep it that way," Wormuth responded.

The conflict in Ukraine has left the U.S. military and allies wanting for shells and other firepower, triggering a push to quickly boost production. Long reliant on World War II-era plants, the Pentagon is spending $6 billion to revamp them with modern equipment and expand output at new facilities that can churn out a variety of munitions, from shells to mortars.

Armed with a slice of a $1 billion contract, defense contractor General Dynamics is leaning on complex machines to make ammunition faster and more efficiently.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the U.S. each month produced around 14,000 of the commonly used 155mm shells, which are about 2 feet long and weigh around 100 pounds. Ukraine has been firing thousands of shells a day from U.S.-made M777 howitzers, weapons designed to hit targets as far as 20 miles away.

The Pentagon is seeking to boost U.S. output of 155mm shells from around 30,000 a month currently to 100,000 by the end of 2025. The Texas plant will take the nation more than halfway to that target, with the first of three production lines set to start this fall.

The shell factory is among U.S. efforts to bring home the production of materials deemed critical to national security, such as explosives, rare-earth minerals and semiconductors. Lockheed Martin is doubling output of its Javelin and Himars rockets at facilities in Camden, Ark. A subsidiary of L3Harris Technologies is expanding a nearby solid rocket motor plant.

The push to quickly expand domestic manufacturing will rely heavily on foreign countries. Machine tools and other critical gear needed to run domestic factories come from plants in countries such as Japan, Germany and Turkey. Defense supply chains that took decades to develop outside the U.S. could take as long to replicate domestically, industry executives said.

Pumping out shells

The facility here is far removed from decades-old shell plants in the U.S. that feature cacophonous clanking from aging machines or fiery blast furnaces.

The new plant is quiet and compact, sitting next to a Frito-Lay distribution facility in a modern industrial park east of Dallas. General Dynamics targeted the Mesquite area as it operates a munitions plant about a dozen miles north in Garland, providing a trained workforce and access to nearby suppliers.

“You have all the elements here necessary to get the job done," said Phebe Novakovic, chief executive of General Dynamics.

Inside the plant, 30-foot-tall, green-painted presses fashion steel bars into the shape of shell casings. A small furnace heats the partly finished shells to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing them to be shaped more precisely. They are then transferred to cooling tunnels and checked for quality.

Most of the process is automated. Roughly 27 machine operators are required, with the bulk of the planned workforce of 400 focused on maintaining the computer-controlled equipment.

General Dynamics selected Repkon, whose headquarters are in Turkey, to supply the presses because no U.S.-based vendor could meet the deadline of having the plant up and running in two years.

Turkey has emerged as a big defense-equipment producer, including drones widely used in Ukraine. Its close ties with U.S. defense companies were interrupted in 2019 when Turkey bought a Russian-made missile defense system, triggering its ejection from the F-35 fighter jet program. Diplomatic relations have since improved.

“Without the support from Turkey, this facility would be empty," Wormuth said after a plant tour with Novakovic.

The robots are made in Germany by Kuka. The firm was bought in 2016 by Midea, a Chinese appliance maker. The equipment isn’t subject to any of the sanctions imposed on some Chinese machinery and raw materials, an Army spokesperson said.

“U.S. companies could have duplicated a lot of the machinery, but not quickly enough," said John Kelly, CEO of the U.S. arm of Hanwha Defense. The South Korean company has worked with General Dynamics, though it wasn’t involved in the Mesquite project.

The Texas plant is one link of the shell supply chain. The steel shell casings produced here are trucked to an Army plant in Iowa. There, the casings are packed with explosives made at facilities in Pennsylvania and Tennessee. When completed, the 155mm shells are shipped to Army warehouses or directly to Ukraine.

Building an ecosystem

For years when the Pentagon needed to cut its budget, orders for munitions were among the first items on the chopping block.

A different approach is under way, as the Pentagon seeks for the U.S. to be self-sufficient in producing key ammunition like artillery shells. In January it outlined a long-range strategy to prop up the defense industrial ecosystem.

The Defense Department said it is committed to maintaining output at elevated levels for several years, and the new plant machinery allows a variety of shells and mortars to be produced on the same line. Boosting domestic stockpiles is critical to prepare for future conflicts, officials have said.

Shells coming off the new production lines cost the Army the same as existing ones from older facilities. They also have improved accuracy and a lower failure rate, Army acquisition chief Doug Bush said.

The Ukraine conflict has charged growth at General Dynamics’s combat systems division, which also makes equipment such as Abrams tanks and Stryker armored vehicles. Demand for war-fighting gear pushed sales in the combat division up 20% in the first quarter after rising 13% last year.

“We’re in an ugly period right now, and that is driving the need for our allies and the United States to arm in the face of threat," said Novakovic at a General Dynamics’s investor conference in February.

Write to Doug Cameron at Doug.Cameron@wsj.com

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