Now nearing its 200th birthday, Watervliet Arsenal remains one of the nation’s last government-owned and government-operated manufacturing facilities. Today’s modern output in support of warfighters is built upon two centuries of tradition, dating back to a time when skilled American craftsmen built their homes from the forests and crafted just about everything else that improved the quality of life of our young nation.
When Congress created the Army in 1775, it did so without an industrial base to supply the war effort. While many of the difficult logistics complications were overcome to support the Army during the Revolutionary War, the industrial base challenges remained in existence when the U.S. Congress declared war on England on June 18, 1812.
As official histories relate, “Given the vast coast and frontier to defend, the Army directed the new Ordnance Department to supply posts, forts, and armies. Without an industrial base to draw on, the Army quickly moved to the establishment of arsenals. On July 14, 1813, near the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in upstate New York, 12 acres of land were purchased for the sum of $2,585.”
The Watervliet location reflected the Army’s established lines of communication (primarily rivers) to quickly move supplies to Lake Champlain in the north or to Niagara Falls in the west.
Although arsenal work would be limited to items like ammunition cartridges, carriages, powder horns, and cartridge boxes for the first few decades, on May 3, 1883, the U.S. Congress approved the establishment of government foundries to manufacturer heavy ordnance. Just over six years later, in July 1889, the Watervliet Arsenal entered its new era of manufacturing as work began on the first large caliber cannon, and forever more Watervliet was called America’s “Big Gun Factory.”
Production and employment peaked during World War II, when, from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor to D-Day in 1944, more than 9,300 employees helped manufacture 23,211 cannons with an on-time delivery rate of 99.96 percent.
Production quantities fluctuated through Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. Along the way, a $350 million Renovation of Armament Manufacturing (REARM) project in the 1980s completely modernized the facility, helping to provide critical new capabilities that are being employed today in service to the nation.
Today’s $1.6 billion complex is situated on a 143-acre site, spans 72 buildings, and has more than 2 million square feet of manufacturing and administrative space. The arsenal workforce of 631 continues to produce the nation’s barrels for tanks, artillery, and mortar systems.
“For nearly 200 years, we have supported our nation’s warfighters in every military conflict since the War of 1812,” observed Col. Mark F. Migaleddi, commander of Watervliet Arsenal. “And because of that there is a strong sense of history and tradition in our workforce. They ‘get it.’ They understand that. And there is a passion here that, given that tradition and history, ‘Not on their watch’ will we allow the arsenal to fail or allow its name or reputation to be tainted. And that speaks to the quality of effort that goes into what we do every day here at the arsenal.”
In terms of significance to the nation, arsenal representatives begin by pointing to the fact that their products do not carry expiration dates. Rather, their skilled machinists and dedicated workforce make things that will last generations, if not lifetimes.
“For the arsenal workforce, supporting the warfighter goes well beyond that of a job, Migaleddi said. “For them, it is a passion that helps define their destiny. What they provide to the warfighter and to our nation goes beyond the hard, cold steel of the tubes they manufacture, because at the end of the day, they provide the troops and their leaders with a sense of confidence during the heat of battle that the mortar, artillery howitzers, or tank cannon they are firing will not fail. It would be hard to measure the effect this peace of mind has on the troops, but it must be powerful.”
Asked about recent accomplishments and production enhancements, Watervliet Arsenal representatives point to the fact that the last few months have witnessed more than $3.5 million in new equipment brought on line to enhance capability and meet both current and projected future requirements.
Offering up one example, John Hockenbury, director of Watervliet Arsenal Operations, points to the arsenal’s recent installation and test of one of its newest pieces of machinery, from the United Kingdom’s Holroyd Components Ltd.
According to Terry Van Vranken, a toolmaker at the arsenal and now the machine operator, this new grinding machine, valued in excess of $1.2 million, replaces several 40-year old machines that were required to make precision components for 105 mm and 155 mm field artillery barrels.
“Not only can we now do precision cuts down to one micron, which is one millionth of a meter, but we can do it faster and with improved quality control,” Van Vranken said. “This machine has cut our setup time between product lines from eight hours down to one hour, and it has an internal computer-generated quality control system that tracks quality from the project’s start to its finish.”
Van Vranken added that there are only four machines like the new arsenal grinding machine in the world, and this machine is the only one of its kind in the United States.
In another recent production enhancement, in May 2010, the arsenal received two new $1.5 million machining lathes from international manufacturers. These lathes, replacing equipment that was purchased during World War II, are slated to come on line by the end of fiscal year 2010.
Hockenbury noted that the arsenal has invested more than $55 million in the last four years and plans to invest another $10 million in new machinery this year.
Asked about other recent accomplishments that offer a special sense of pride, Ed McCarthy, deputy commander of Watervliet Arsenal, immediately pointed to the arsenal’s deliveries of armor.
“Some of our greatest accomplishments, since sometime in 2002, have been with our armor workload, because of its direct impact on the Soldier in the field and also because of some of the feedback we have gotten, up to and including a visit from a Soldier who was in an up-armored vehicle when an RPG went off,” McCarthy said. “He got out of it with a few cuts and scrapes but no major injuries. And he actually came in and spoke to our workforce about the value and the pride that he took in knowing that the up-armored kit could have been one of those manufactured here.”
“That was really a cultural change for the folks who are involved in production,” echoed Hockenbury. “Because, as you look at [our] main products, whether they are tank cannons, or howitzer barrels, or mortar tubes, and then shift focus to manufacturing and shipping out these up-armor kits, you see that we had no history or tradition in up-armoring. So it was a matter of transformation, building the team and involving all processes at the arsenal – from resource management to production to quality control. And we went out locally here too, to see what capabilities might be available locally to support this effort. But from 2004 to the end of that mission a couple of months ago in April 2010, more than 20,000 kits, doors, and overhead covers were shipped out of here to support the warfighters.”
“Another part of this is, when most people think of the Watervliet Arsenal, they think of us as adding lethality capability on the battlefield through our tubes and barrels,” McCarthy continued. “But this program gave the arsenal workforce a different perspective. It was no surprise to those who are involved with and understand the arsenal, but we are not just on the lethality side of things. This product focused on the survivability enhancements that our capabilities bring to warfighters. All of our products make us feel good, but when you actually see that you have saved a Soldier’s life, that’s powerful.”
McCarthy said that the up-armoring activities at Watervliet spanned fleet sizes from HMMWVs to MRAPS, with primary focus on two-door and four-door kits for HMMWVs, Gunner Protection Kits, Overhead Protection Kits that went over the Gunner Protection Kits, and completely new armored cabs for the M939 series 5-ton vehicles.
“That was complete with windshield ballistic glass, windshield wipers, air condition units, seats, everything,” he added.
Expanding on the accomplishment, Hockenbury said, “We were the first government site to deliver the M939 cab. The other sites got started as well, but we were the first to deliver.”
Along with the powerful message of saving Soldiers’ lives, the use of the government-owned manufacturing facility is credited with saving the government more than $20 million on that program.
“When the arsenal achieves cost savings due to efficiencies in production or from cost reductions in raw products, the savings are typically returned to our customer,” Hockenbury said.
McCarthy offered the succinct assessment, “We pride ourselves on delivering a quality product, on time, at the right price, safely.”
As with any forward-looking enterprise today, Watervliet Arsenal is monitoring a range of workforce issues among its current 631 employees (544 males/77 females). With an average age of 48 years, and with 71 of those employees having more than 36 years of service, 51 percent of the workforce will be eligible to retire in the next three years.
While not necessarily “the perfect storm” envisioned by some employment specialists, the Watervliet Arsenal scenario would certainly qualify for “retirement tsunami” designation. Moreover, the arsenal situation will be further complicated over the same three-year time span, when the local GE manufacturing business – which competes with Watervliet Arsenal for skilled machinists – will also have about 50 percent of its workforce eligible for retirement. Given that there will be two of the largest manufacturers in the New York State Capital District competing for scarce skilled talent at the same time, it is possible that “the perfect storm” will soon become the more appropriate metaphor.
Fortunately, the arsenal’s deputy commander points to multiple parallel efforts under way to try to offset the attrition factor in the aging/maturing workforce.
“First, we run an apprentice training program and have done so since 1905,” McCarthy explained. “It went into a slight hiatus and we reactivated it in 2004. Under that program, we have apprentices in training under that 8,000 hour on-the-job-training course, in addition to four years of evening instruction at a local community college. And when they graduate from that they have an associates degree and also State of New York and Army certification as a journeyman machinist.”
Elaborating on the aging workforce challenges, Hockenbury observed, “I happened to take a look at our machinist category to see what we were doing to address what some call ‘the federal retirement tsunami,’ in the transition of the workforce. What I did was look at today’s current roster compared to the same roster in 2005. On the current roster, 55 percent of our machinists have less than 10 years of service here at the arsenal. These are not all just 18-year-olds straight out of high school. Some come from outside industry. But they still haven’t seen some of our complex components before. So there’s still a challenge there. But the point is that we are proactive in addressing the retirement tsunami. On the other hand, I went back five years, to our 2005 roster, and 60 percent of those machinists are either retired or are no longer in a machinist position as a result of promotion. It’s typical that they learn the job on the shop floor and then get promoted into a planning job where you plan how a component will be manufactured. They could also be promoted into manufacturing supervision or production order – maintaining the books on customers’ orders. I think those are rather significant ‘sea change’ numbers when you talk about hard skilled employee populations.”
As noted above, workforce issues don’t end at the arsenal “fence line,” but rather encompass complications of aging manufacturing workforces across the nearby industrial community, which will spawn increased competition for trained machinists, as well as the local community college operating at maximum capacity in support of the apprentice program.
Along with the workforce issues, McCarthy pointed to “workload” as another future challenge over the next several years as the arsenal maintains its base of critical skills and capabilities so that it remains able to rapidly react to the nation’s demands and needs to support warfighters throughout the world.
Currently, the arsenal’s “known” workload, what it also refers to as its “firm” workload, is typically defined by orders for the next two years. Within this two-year projection, the workload for the next 18 months (through first quarter FY 12) looks healthy, but will significantly drop off after that. This is historically the type of forecast expected because the arsenal’s customers typically do not have a clear understanding of what will be required, beyond the short term, nor do they have a clear idea what funding will be available. World events can also dictate the amount of spare parts that will be required.
“Our product line is derived from the Army force structure,” McCarthy said. “In other words, they determine how many tanks, howitzers and mortars are going to be required by the service. So if those numbers go down, often there is not enough workload to maintain our workforce skills and capabilities to be able to respond if there is a national emergency that would require our product. Unlike the depot environment, where vehicles may require cyclic maintenance, reset, or recapitalization, when we manufacture a weapon system for a platform we do it once. During the course of the system’s life it may get ‘re-tubed’ once or twice, but most of our parts will last the life of the system. And that system may in fact undergo two or three platform rebuilds in the same period. That gives the depots a greater ability to project requirements in the out years based on maintenance of vehicles, whereas our systems are extremely durable and last many times over the rebuilds on those platforms.”
Arsenal representatives note that during the next 18 months there will be an evolutionary change from the current production of three prototype and five legacy systems, to nominal prototype work and only two cannon systems. Mortar work, however, is expected to grow.
Prototype work is considered the “window” to the view of future workload. For the past 15 to 20 years, the only mortar work the arsenal provided has been barrel assemblies and mortar baseplates. This represented approximately 2 percent of the total hours of direct labor expended. With the shift from tanks/howitzers to smaller calibers, the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command Item manager has been coming to the arsenal for additional spares, which has increased the mortar workload to better than 10 percent of the total direct labor hours expended. This trend is expected to continue to grow, and the arsenal is currently quoting various mortar components on all three mortar variants: 60 mm, 81 mm, and 120 mm.
But even the near future is laced with uncertainties. Perhaps the best recent example of this for Watervliet Arsenal was the loss of the Future Combat System prototype program, resulting in a reduction of more than 50 percent of the arsenal’s “firm” planned future workload.
To minimize that loss, the Arsenal has been pursuing various alternatives to re-establish a diversified workload base. The strategy includes both new customers and previous/new systems and components. Examples include bomb casings, Navy parts for 76 mm guns, work shares with the depots, and small barrels (20 mm, 25 mm, 40 mm, and 76 mm). While these efforts have come with varying degrees of success, arsenal representatives stress that they will continue to pursue these alternatives to grow the workload base.
While highlighting the arsenal’s continuing efforts to serve the nation and its warfighters, they offer a glimpse back two decades, to the end of the Cold War, which had brought about the last big boost to defense spending for increasing the capability and capacity of America’s defense industrial base. Against that backdrop, they pose the question: Where does that leave one of the last remaining government-owned, government-operated manufacturers or what the government calls its “organic base?”
Answering their own question, they note that the Army realized many years ago, and Congress has validated through a series of subsequent actions, such as the 1920 Arsenal Act, why there must be an organic base. In essence, why there must be an Army-owned and operated arsenal. But, beyond Army and Congressional directives and law, there is compelling common sense as to why it makes sense today to retain organic manufacturing capability. The fact is that there are core capabilities that are so critical to warfighting that they should not be relegated to a manufacturer whose priority of effort may or may not be directed or determined by the Department of Defense.
Today, Watervliet Arsenal manufactures virtually all the “tubes” for every tank, artillery, and mortar system that is in daily contact with enemy forces in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan. To do so, the arsenal workforce has compiled more than 10,000 years of manufacturing experience in these weapon systems. There isn’t a defense contractor in America that has that expertise immediately available.
But it’s far more than mere words and references to historical acts. Recent real-world examples range from the previously noted armor kits to the manufacture of components as small as a system firing pin (1-inch by 1/8-inch in diameter), to a hard target penetrator that weighed in excess of thousands of pounds. The final example, better known as the “bunker buster bomb” employed during the Iraq War, was fielded by Watervliet Arsenal only 23 days after initial concept development.
Summarizing the Watervliet message, McCarthy observed, “I think it’s important to understand who we are, what we do, and our significance to today’s Army. But the other thing that is resident here at Watervliet Arsenal is an extreme sense of pride throughout the workforce in what we have done for generation upon generation. From the War of 1812, through all major conflicts, including World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and today, our installation workforce has retained its commitment to the warfighter.”
This article was first published in U.S. Army Materiel Command: 2010-2011 Edition.