"Nearly two years ago, an errant spark inside a mill caused an explosion so big it destroyed all the building’s equipment and blew a corrugated fiberglass wall 100 feet" at the Minden, La., plant, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. "It also shut down the sole domestic source of an explosive the Department of Defense relies on to produce bullets, mortar shells, artillery rounds and Tomahawk missiles."
The makeshift facility produces black powder, the original form of gunpowder, which is a highly combustible substance with numerous military applications. Black powder is an irreplaceable component used in small quantities to ignite more potent explosives in munitions, the report continued.
While no one was injured in the explosion, the factory is still not up and running.
At the end of the Cold War, military suppliers came under pressure to cut defense costs and streamline the nation's industrial base, leading to consolidation. In the last three decades, the number of fixed-wing aircraft suppliers in the United States has decreased from eight to three. Similarly, major surface ship producers have declined from eight to two, and currently, only three American companies provide more than 90 percent of the Pentagon's missile stockpile, the WSJ noted.
"Lower-tier defense firms are often the sole maker of vital parts—such as black powder—and a single crisis can bring production to a standstill," said the outlet.
According to defense experts, congressional staffers, and U.S. military officials, the dwindling number of military suppliers in the United States is becoming a significant concern. This is particularly evident in the challenges faced when supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine or restocking reserves to prepare for potential conflicts with China in the era of great-power competition, said the outlet.
Following months of providing Ukraine with anti-armor systems, Stingers, howitzers, and artillery ammunition, both the United States and its NATO allies are now facing low stocks. The shortage is particularly noticeable in 155mm howitzer shells, which have played a critical role in repelling Russian forces.
“Can you imagine what would happen to these supply chains if the U.S. were in an actual state of active war, or NATO was?” Jeff Rhoads, executive director of the Purdue Institute for National Security, a defense-research center at Purdue University, asked the WSJ. “They could be in trouble very quickly.”
In existence for over a millennium, the Minden explosion "incident," as it's been called, serves as a stark reminder of the dangers confronting the U.S. military. The explosion, which destroyed a building from the World War II era in a secluded facility located 30 miles from Shreveport, led to the complete cessation of black powder production in North America.
Black powder has been an essential material for both military and commercial applications for over a millennium. Although it is now a specialty commodity with limited commercial uses, it remains crucially important for over 300 types of munitions. These include bullets for M-16 rifles and M4 carbines, cruise missiles, and, most importantly, the vital 155mm shells. Even today, black powder continues to play a significant role in modern weaponry, said the outlet.
Due to limited sales volume, profits from black powder production can be insufficient to support multiple manufacturing facilities. This vulnerability is widespread and commonly referred to as the "single source" problem by the Pentagon. For instance, there is only one foundry in the U.S. that produces the titanium castings required for howitzers, and only one company manufactures the rocket motor utilized in the widely-used Javelin anti-tank missile in Ukraine, the WSJ reported.
One of the primary issues is that the Pentagon can be an unpredictable customer. The demand for products can rise or fall depending on various factors, such as inventory levels, the current state of military engagements, or budget priorities. This has created challenges for black powder mill operators, who must contend with changing orders and costly regulations.
"In the meantime, U.S. military contractors who use black powder have been drawing on stockpiles, according to people familiar with the matter and U.S. officials. Other producers of black powder exist in Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Brazil and China," the WSJ reported.