WATERVLIET, N.Y. — On a spring day here at Watervliet Arsenal, workers tapped commands into computers and peered into futuristic pods to watch a robotic arm carve small metal cannon parts.
They sat just steps away from dozens of World War II-era, rusted machining tools, which until recently were used to painstakingly craft these parts.
The facility — America’s oldest working arsenal — is nestled by the Hudson River in upstate New York and serves as the only U.S. Army facility able to produce the large caliber cannon tubes critical to tanks, artillery systems and mortars.
Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everything old at Watervliet is new again. The pace of battle in Eastern Europe is highlighting the long-established need to outgun the enemy, a difficult task given the strength of Russia’s artillery.
The tools built at Watervliet Arsenal are key to systems that fire on Russian troops in order to prevent them from advancing or help Ukraine take back territory. They are part of weapons that can be used day or night, in all types of weather, making for a highly reliable system.
Such weapons have played a critical role in preventing Russia from conquering Ukraine and have proved a centuries-old, but temporarily forgotten adage — artillery is the king of battle.
For Ukraine, the thousands of weapons supplied by the U.S. are essential. The U.S. has committed to sending Ukraine more than 160 155mm howitzers, 72 105mm howitzers and 31 Abrams tanks, all of which require the type of cannon barrels made at Watervliet. But the invasion has also prompted U.S. officials to take a close look at its own backlog of ammunition — and the potential obstacles to producing more. Potential single sources of failure, like Watervliet, have come under new scrutiny from the military, Congress and contractors.
Already the Pentagon has taken steps to ramp up production of other key weapons systems. For instance, when it comes to 155m shells, the military is expanding from one government-owned, contractor-operated facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to two more locations: One based on a partnership with a Canadian company; the other, a General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems-run factory in Garland, Texas.
But there are no easy solutions to take the pressure off Watervliet, a sprawling, 142-acre facility established during the War of 1812 that has provided U.S. military equipment used in the Mexican-American War, World War II and the Gulf War, among other conflicts. Many of its buildings are more than 100 years old. And there isn’t much room for expansion, as the property abuts the backyards of locals.
Now the Army is at a difficult juncture. If the United States wants to continue to provide systems that require large caliber gun tubes to Ukraine, like M777 howitzers, without severely depleting its own supplies, it faces an uphill task: updating the country’s oldest arsenal to modern production standards.
Today, demand for the arsenal’s work is growing. A spokesperson for Watervliet told Defense News that there has been an approximately 71% increase in cannon production since October 2019. Furthermore, the Army has made long-range fires a key priority and is prototyping a next-generation weapon that will require a significantly longer gun tube.
The service is currently working to modernize the facility by spending more than $1 billion to shore up and reinforce its industrial capacity. These plans will take nearly a decade to implement.
The oldest building on campus, constructed in 1828, is now home to a high-tech lab working to modernize gun tubes — a top priority for the Army — which includes developing longer-range gun tubes as well as methods for manufacturing them at scale.
Last year, Doug Bush, the Army’s acquisition chief, told lawmakers the service planned to spend more than $200 million on Watervliet in fiscal 2023.
“It’s a vital single point of failure in the supply chain that we have to protect,” Bush said.
How to make a gun tube
A cannon barrel, or gun tube, is a straight cylinder made of metal that can vary in length and in the size of the bore — the tube’s hollow interior. Projectiles are fired from the tube at high speeds, triggered by high-pressure gases or propellant.
The Army declined to say how many cannon tubes Watervliet is producing, but a recent Wall Street Journal report estimated it makes hundreds annually.
These tubes are critical to using weapons systems like the Paladin howitzer and the M1 Abrams tank. But Watervliet is expanding its work as the service produces new systems. For instance, the Army has entered low-rate production for gun tubes for its new M10 Booker combat vehicle, Col. Alain Fisher, Watervliet’s commander, told Defense News.
The arsenal has also built a handful of gun tubes for the Extended Range Cannon Artillery system, which the Army is using to test a longer-range cannon, Fisher said.
While gun tubes vary depending on the system for which they are intended, the process for making one is relatively uniform. The arsenal first receives preformed, raw steel from outside vendors.
The steel is heat-treated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the smoldering hot, bright orange rod then moves through the gnawing lamprey-like mouth of the rotary forge that hammers the tube into the shape of a cannon in about 14 minutes.
The cannon undergoes additional heat treatment to toughen up the material to withstand firings. It then moves into rough machining, followed by work on the threads and the power chamber, then the rifling of the inside of the cannon.
After final quality inspections, the cannon receives chrome plating inside the barrel, then it’s painted and packaged to either preserve as a spare cannon tube or deliver for assembly to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, where it’s fired and potentially accepted.
Before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. Army had a five-year plan to modernize Watervliet’s equipment, according to the head of the service’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, Maj. Gen. Darren Werner.
“From the rotary forge to our heat treatment facilities, you’ll go across the board, you’ll see that there’s an aged amount of equipment that’s there,” Werner said. The rotary forge, for instance, dates back to the 1970s.
When Werner took on his role in 2020, he said he quickly identified several high-risk areas, such as chrome plating on the inside of the barrel as part of cannon tube production.
“It was not up to industrial standard,” he said, “and it was because we were using equipment that was outdated.”
The Army in 2021 installed modern, multi-axle milling machines that have had “a profound impact on our ability to deliver high-quality materials to support all the actions associated with gun tubes,” Werner said.
Maintaining a high standard of precision and accuracy in manufacturing is critical because a cannon tube with a defect could, at a minimum, affect the accuracy of a shot, or reduce its range or the life of a barrel. At worst, a mistake could cause a catastrophic failure.
The seven new milling machines have replaced “a lot of single-use machine tools that were old and tired from the ’40s,” John Bianchi, Watervliet’s production director, told Defense News. With the new machines, producing a large caliber gun component now takes 80 days, down from about 170, and quality has “dramatically increased,” he added.
The Army also added a second curing system and a second machine to add rifling inside the barrel in order to increase capacity.
Early last year, the Army, as part of its 15-year organic industrial base strategy, announced a plan to invest $1.3 billion into Watervliet through fiscal 2037 to provide the arsenal with more state-of-the-art machines and enable it to accommodate new weapon systems with longer gun tubes.
In FY23, which began in October, the Army sought $221.5 million for upgrades and improvements, including a $65 million rotary forge replacement, an electro-chemical machining system and a new water-jet system for cannon tube rifling.
Going forward, Werner said, the Army must build an industrial control network that digitally links the machines. This network would collect data to manage maintenance plans, he explained.
Making room for longer ranges
Workers at Watervliet are preparing for the Army’s Extended Range Cannon Artillery system, currently in the prototyping phase and expected to enter the field in 2030.
The 58-caliber cannon is 30 feet long, nearly double the length of some other tubes Watervliet makes.
“We’ve found ways to manufacture that tube effectively using the equipment that we have, but it’s not optimal,” Werner said. “When we put a tube into the paint booth to paint it, we have to put it in diagonally.”
Most of the facilities and tools used at Watervliet are able to accommodate the longer gun tubes, but not efficiently. So the Army is taking steps to build a new long-range precision fire facility focused on manufacturing those longer parts and using modern production methods.
Fisher said the service is now figuring out where to put it. Options on the table include tearing down old housing to make space; or using space freed up by the arsenal’s efforts, already underway, to consolidate its mortar factory into one building.
The Army is budgeting to begin construction on the new factory in FY26, Fisher added. The arsenal is set to receive $130 million in FY24 and $154 million in FY25, and is slated to get $359 million in FY26, part of which will go toward establishing the new facility, he explained.
But it’s not just future systems Watervliet must prepare for; Werner said the Army also wants to ensure the arsenal can surge to fulfill the needs of foreign customers, including Ukraine.
In a statement provided to Defense News, Bush, the Army’s acquisition chief, said the service’s facilities “were not producing at capacity prior to the Ukraine conflict.”
But, he added, the production facility is not the only limit on capacity. “There is also the available workforce (which can be expanded) as well as component and material availability in the downstream supply chain,” he said.
Werner noted the Army is trying to improve Watervliet’s capacity by developing the workforce and streamlining operations.
Watervliet “has really come a long way in the last three years,” Werner said, “with regard to integration of new technology. And what they’ve [proved] is they’re very effective at solving problems, identifying how they can do things better and then integrating those solutions in their day-to-day operations.”
With the growing demand for artillery, analysts and former government officials said it might make sense to produce gun tubes at other locations.
Steven Grundman, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and a former Pentagon industrial base official, told Defense News that adding another source would “reduce your risk of single point of failure, be that from sabotage or otherwise natural, an act of God or otherwise” while also keeping “an element of competition in the game, which is good for everybody.”
Bruce Jette, who served as Army acquisition chief during the Trump administration, said it would be a “great idea” for industry to produce gun tubes at another facility. The service “should have a plan with the ability to expand our production. I know industry has an interest in trying to support doing that,” he noted.
Jette added that the Army previously considered a range of options, such as expanding a Navy facility that makes gun tubes, working with a commercial forge, or reopening government-owned facilities. None of the ideas ultimately made sense.
“It was like playing the worst Monopoly game on Earth,” he said. “Every time we tried to make a move, there’s another card you have to pick up, and it says: ‘Oh, you can’t do that because of this. Oh, you can’t do that because of that.’ ”
Asked about expanding beyond Watervliet, Bush told Defense News that “options are on the table and being reviewed” but said it’s too early to discuss those alternatives.
The Army has at times issued requests for information to industry focused on producing gun tubes in the U.S. outside of the arsenal. As recently as March 2023, Army Contracting Command released a sources-sought notice to identify companies capable of manufacturing the M776 155mm cannon tube of the M777 howitzer.
Before the war in Ukraine, the Army released a sources-sought notice for 120mm M256 cannon tubes used for tanks; last year, the service again asked contractors able to produce the same cannon tubes domestically to speak up.
Rheinmetall, based in Germany, is the original equipment manufacturer for the 120mm smoothbore cannon tube.
American Rheinmetall responded to the Army’s recent requests for information on large caliber barrel sourcing, according to Stephen Hedger, who leads the company’s U.S. branch.
“Recognizing the limited capacity and rapidly growing demands on Watervliet, we have shared with the Army our interest in exploring the establishment of new U.S. industrial production to supplement the great capabilities at the arsenal,” he told Defense News.
But there are hurdles to establishing a second source. The Arsenal Act of 1920 prevents the U.S. government from seeking an outside source to build supplies and weapons the Army needs if it can be accomplished in-house on an economical basis. And the Stratton Amendment of 1986 bans the transfer of technical data used to build cannons outside of the country.
Bush said Watervliet provides the best value for cannon production “because within the United States, there is no other commercial capacity to make what is a highly specialized and defense-unique item.”
Creating additional manufacturing facilities is “theoretically possible,” he added, but it would take considerable time and upfront investment.
In a May 2023 Defense Acquisition University study by Joshua Michael Charm on the U.S. cannon tube industrial base, he wrote: “Even in smaller conflicts, the responsiveness of the industrial base is critical as time is of the essence and is critically important during war and can be the difference of the outcome of a conflict. Keeping all cannon tube production within Watervliet Arsenal is not always the best solution when demand is high enough and delivery schedules are paramount.”
“However, turning on other producers outside of Watervliet Arsenal, even those who have capability to produce cannon tubes, is not a quick process,” he added, given those efforts “must be done outside of the time pressures of an active war since the timeline will be measured in years, and not weeks or even months.”
Charm recommended a “re-examination” of the Stratton Amendment as a potential solution.
In the meantime, the Army — and the rest of the U.S. military — is trying to meet the increased demand created by the war in Ukraine, while gauging what future demand might look like, said Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Baroni Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University and a former Pentagon industrial base official.
Watervliet is only just now modernizing because it hasn’t had the money or the demand, he told Defense News.
“It’s going to modulate ... we’re not going to be at this level of demand forever, but we’re going to have to just realize that we’re going to have to build above need in some places for a sustained period of time,” he said. “We have to have stocks for contingencies.
“The question is what is that kind of steady state? And I think that everyone’s trying to figure that out.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.