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Tucked away in a quiet corner of Des Moines County, the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant has seen its share of production highs and lows. Since it began operations in 1941, just as the United States was about to enter World War II, the plant has seen orders for artillery shells pile up to meet the needs of U.S. soldiers fighting overseas and fall when the troops come home.

Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine is the latest conflict that has sparked a need for munitions on a scale not seen in decades. Yet despite the extra demand, the Iowa plant and others like it won’t just be able to begin pumping out more shells than usual. 

American Ordnance, the company responsible for operating the IAAP, could not be reached for a comment. 

Defense officials have made it clear that they want to raise production to keep up with Ukrainian demand while also replenishing the U.S.’s own shrinking stockpiles. But these goals are hampered by age-old problems in the defense sector. With difficult processes for greenlighting new production, a shrinking pool of manufacturing workers, and uncertainty born from budget battles in Congress, the task of boosting the amount of munitions needed to help Ukraine and maintain the U.S.’s own defense needs is a tall one. 

Jerry McGinn, a government contracting expert with experience working at the Pentagon, said that the military’s plans for ramping up production are achievable, but whether they will succeed is a “different question.” 

The defense industry’s challenges are a microcosm of the issues in the broader manufacturing sector. Like other parts of the manufacturing sector, it is grappling with a shortage of skilled workers, unfilled positions, and uncertainty about future business conditions that complicate efforts to restart production.  

In January, the U.S. Army laid out plans to expand artillery production beyond the IAAP and another facility located in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an effort its top acquisition official said would be the fastest surge since the Korean War. But doing this requires large capital investments that take time to develop on top of a long process of examinations and approvals of new facilities for making shells. 

“If you max out a production line, building a new one is not so simple,” McGinn said in a phone interview. “It cannot happen next week.”

Then comes the challenge of building a workforce that can meet these goals. With nearly six million jobs lost between 1980 and 2022, manufacturing’s proportion of the total U.S. workforce has been declining for decades. Today, the manufacturing workforce is growing older, with nearly 50% over the age of 44, and it is losing skilled workers as retirements continue. The broader shift towards service-sector jobs and increasing automation has also whittled away at the sector.

The defense sector as a whole has been struggling with these trends for decades too. According to a recent report by the National Defense Industry Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, the number of employees in the defense sector shrank from 3 million in 1985 to just about 1.1 million in 2021.

The decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector has been ongoing for decades, but with the loss of so many workers comes the loss of the skills needed to meet the Pentagon’s goals of ramping up production.  

McGinn said that though the defense workforce’s declines have stabilized, expanding it will be difficult because of the smaller pool of manufacturing workers and the overall health of the U.S. economy, which makes competing for workers harder. 

Further away in Scranton, where the first leg of the artillery production chain lies, these problems are not as apparent. The Scranton plant, like the IAAP, has been in operation for decades and has been designated as a site for new production. 

Dr. Satyajit Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Scranton, said that generations of operations at the plant have created a localized bank of skilled workers that would be available for higher production needs if needed. However, Ghosh said that it is difficult to predict how the war in Ukraine and the level of U.S. involvement in it will change this.

"It is hard to tell, because [General Dynamics] is not exactly open about saying exactly at what rate they will need to increase their production facilities," Dr. Ghosh said in a phone interview. "It seems like if our level of assistance for Ukraine is maintained, there will sooner or later be a need for more production."

In a January earnings call, General Dynamics’ CEO Phebe Novakovic said that his firm has seen more demand signals over the war but did not mention any plans for expanding the workforce. A spokesperson for General Dynamics did not comment on labor plans but said the company would collaborate “very closely” with the Army to increase munitions production. 

Even if companies wanted to pull in thousands of new workers, sticking to any strategy would be difficult without either long-term contracts. On that, the problem runs through Congress and its bitter budget battles, which have left the federal government relying on short-term “continuing resolutions” instead of a stable budget since 2010. 

Though continuing resolutions continue to ensure contracts are paid, it hampers how companies working with the Pentagon plan to ensure the billions in defense dollars allocated annually go towards longer-term projects. Instead, companies are forced into a bind where they must worry about pulling the plug on these initiatives if Congress fails to reach any agreement on government funding. 

"These programs are multi-year," said McGinn from George Mason. "But continuing resolutions and budget uncertainty from Congress create havoc for companies to plan their workforce and in government programs to start new production."