Ammunition plant goes green
By Brian Burnes - The Kansas City Star
Posted : Friday Nov 7, 2008 6:24:29 EST

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — On a recent day in Independence, a below-the-radar event occurred that figures to affect the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An employee inside a huge government factory pushed a “buggy,” a low-riding wheelbarrow filled with thousands of new rifle cartridges, toward an inspection area.

Other employees and visitors crowded around.

The cartridges were made of brass casings assembled with propellant charges and projectiles, or slugs. The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence produces millions of such 5.56 mm cartridges every day for weapons that are carried by U.S. military forces.

But the employees attending this loading operation at Lake City knew these cartridges were different.

“This is the green ammunition,” said Bill Melton, a Lake City Army consultant.

These were cartridges without lead projectiles.

The recent manufacture of lead-free cartridges represented an evolutionary shift for Lake City, the largest producer of small-arms ammunition used by the U.S. military. The slugs, instead of being made of lead — a metal used for centuries — now are being manufactured with a bismuth alloy.

That alloy has a density roughly equivalent to lead but without lead’s toxicity.

The lead-free cartridges assembled in October were part of an initial 600,000-round test sample of green ammunition headed for the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for evaluation.

This month, Lake City employees will begin producing the first order of 20 million rounds of lead-free cartridges.

The cartridges still will have to pass muster in ongoing evaluations, but they could be delivered by January to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What I try to tell the work force here is that they almost have an effect on global stability and the global economy,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Day, the U.S. Army’s plant commander at Lake City.

Ammunition manufacturers know lead to be malleable and comparatively inexpensive. But lead also is toxic.

“The military is looking to preserve its ability to train in the context of increasing environmental regulation,” Melton said. “The Army wanted to be able to continue live-fire training exercises without restriction.

“That’s the reason for going to a lead-free round.”

Within the ammunition-manufacturing universe, the conversion represents a vast retooling.

The ammunition produced at Lake City includes 5.56 mm cartridges used in the M-16 rifle, M-4 carbine and M-249 machine gun. The traditional lead-projectile cartridges still being manufactured at the approximately 4,000-acre complex represent the basic unit of foot-soldier combat.

Further, the plant’s defense role has grown in the last decade. Since the mid-1990s, production has rocketed from between 300 million and 400 million rounds a year to perhaps 1.4 billion.

“Every single soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who goes out of a combat outpost in Iraq or Afghanistan goes out with something that we make here,” Day said.

There’s also the effect on the local economy.

Lake City is the largest employer in Independence. Its work force, which numbers 2,550, has jumped almost 300 percent from 650 employees eight years ago.

“There have been times over the last five or six years when the spotlight was pretty hot on the plant to produce,” said Karen Davies, vice president and general manager at the government-owned facility, operated since 2000 by Alliant Techsystems.

Operators say the transition to green ammunition — combined with a seven-year, $240 million modernization — positions Lake City well for the long term.

The lead-free cartridges will display the same performance as cartridges with lead, Day said. In fact, the new M855 LFS is expected to include some improvements.

A suppressant will eliminate the muzzle flash that can give away the shooter’s position.