The Big Bang Theory: Can Europe Detonate its Explosives Output in Time?

Europe's faltering explosives industry, weakened by post-Cold War downsizing, struggles to ramp up production to meet Ukraine's overwhelming demand for ammunition amidst the conflict with Russia.

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Frontier India News Network
Frontier India News Network
Frontier India News Network is the in-house news collection and distribution agency.

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said the European Union should be ready for potential conflict with Russia and implement measures for collective military buildup during a broadcast on the Deutschlandfunk radio station on May 26, 2024. However, Europe lacks TNT and other propellants for shells and missiles. Europe is urgently trying to boost its relatively small output of these military projectiles.

In January 2024, the European Union admitted to failing to supply Ukraine with one million shells by March 2024. On March 15, 2024, it allocated approximately $542 million to increase production capacity. The scheme is called the Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP). However, a lack of explosives is now thought to be the most dangerous bottleneck.

Europe needs substantial quantities of explosive substances to manufacture 2 million shells annually by the end of 2025. Every artillery shell contains 10.8 kg of potent explosive substances like TNT (trinitrotoluene), HMX (High Melting eXplosive), or RDX (Royal Demolition eXplosive). Furthermore, the shells must be launched tens of kilometers using additional propellant charges. Other weapons necessitate a greater amount, such as the high-explosive warhead of cruise missiles which weighs about 300 to 500 kg. The issue lies in the lack of confidence among explosive makers over the feasibility of increasing production.

Following the end of the Cold War, the market for weapons significantly decreased, resulting in numerous European explosive manufacturers having to reduce their workforce, merge with other companies, or permanently close their facilities. The UK closed its last explosive manufacturing plant in 2008. The last major TNT producer in Europe, Nitro-Chem S.A, is in northern Poland. The production output of this company is insufficient. The US is also trying to increase the production of shells and Nitro-Chem is a supplier to the country. In other EU countries, many state-owned facilities have either been privatized or mothballed.

European explosives manufacturers have focused on efficiency for peace times rather than large-scale industrial outputs for many years. Consequently, the supply chain has a minimal surplus to accommodate the increasing demand.

Let us take the example of explosive materials used for the primary charge of an artillery shell or missile. Only a few companies now manufacture high-energy materials that comply with NATO standards. One such company is Chemring Nobel, which has a large facility in Saetre, Norway. Eurenco, a French company, also operates in Karlskoga, Sweden.
Since the fighting in Ukraine began, both companies’ order books have grown. Until 2030, the Eurenco and the Chemring plants in Saetre will see full production. 

Companies are spending to grow their capacities because ASAP subsidies appeal to them. However, starting from scratch can take three to seven years. For example, Rheinmetall, a company that makes ammo, is building a complex to make explosives in Hungary. But it won’t start making them until 2027. There needs to be more skilled workers in the business as youngsters may not find it appealing to work in this field.

Nitro-Chem is another company that is eager to capitalize on ASAP. The company intends to expand its production capacity in the future. The company’s application encompasses the development of a facility with the necessary infrastructure to manufacture ammunition in the 155 mm Krab and 120 mm Rak calibers.  

It will also take a while for plants that shut down to start working again because they need to be re-equipped and fixed. Also, many rules about safety and the environment may make it hard to increase capacity. 

The availability of essential basic materials, including chemical precursors, is also in question. Nitric acid, a chemical compound, can be tough to acquire. Although nitric acid is indispensable for producing nitrocellulose, a critical base material for explosives, most nitric acid production is reserved for fertilizers. Nevertheless, explosive manufacturers encounter reduced supplies due to fertilizer manufacturers’ increased energy costs. In addition, the supply chain is also vulnerable, as cotton linters, a type of fiber that is a vital ingredient in nitrocellulose, are primarily imported from China.

Certain ammunition suppliers are sourcing their munitions from the international market. According to reports, Indian and Japanese explosive manufacturers are partially filling this void. Some specialists are apprehensive that the inferior quality of imported explosives may result in equipment damage.

European governments’ rhetoric is optimistic, indicating some progress has been made. Annual ammunition production across the EU is anticipated to reach 1.4 million by the end of 2024, a significant increase from the 500,000 produced about a year ago.

On April 11, 2024, French President Emmanuel Macron laid the first brick for the Eurenco ammunition fuel facility in Bergerac, defending the efficiency of the French “military economy.” He claimed the facility would be operational by 2025, a record-breaking timeframe.

The objective of producing 2 million projectiles may be reached within 3-5 years. However, the 2 million shell production capacity is likely a long-term objective to be achieved in the next 5-10 years as operations expand and scale up.


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