The United States Army's plans to construct a new combat rifle will have an impact on the local economy.
The Army plans to build a new production facility at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant within a couple years to produce new ammunition for the weapon – a development that could lead to additional jobs and more assurance for the future of Independence's largest employer.
A spokesperson for Northrop Grumman, which has operated Lake City since it purchased previous operator Orbital ATK last year, said the Army Corps of Engineers anticipates it will issue a contract this summer. Construction would take place in the next 24 to 36 months, after the weapon has been designed.
Whitney Watson, communications manager for Northrop Grumman, said the number of jobs involved is unknown, as a lot will depend on the number of new weapons produced – and thus the quantity of ammunition needed. Just as important though, is that it will be long-term and not a temporary job bubble.
“It will mean new jobs,” Watson said. “It's going to be a big deal for the local economy.”
“It's going to be the weapon of the future, is what the Army's saying,” he said. “They're going to make 100,000 weapons at first; this isn't going to be one big push.
“When we started the war on terror (2001), it took us a year to ramp up production.”
Currently, Watson said, Lake City has about 2,000 Northrop Grumman employees, not counting some private contractors.
Tom Lesnak, president and CEO of the Independence Chamber of Commerce and president of the Economic Development Council, said he's not heard an estimate regarding jobs, but even if some jobs are simply shifted, the anticipated developments are promising.
“They've been growing for the past 12 months,” Lesnak said. “Since Northrop Grumman took over they've been growing each quarter. In the past 18 months, when it was still Orbital, they had been down to 1,400.”
An email to the Army Corps of Engineers district office in Kansas City seeking confirmation of the Lake City plans had not been answered as of Friday evening, but a spokesperson there did not deny plans for a new production facility.
The new building, which would be the first at Lake City in about 50 years, during the Vietnam War, would be to produce a 6.8-millimeter round – different from the 5.56 and 7.62 small-caliber rounds used by the military. Watson said the new round is would be designed to have greater armor-piercing capability even though it's lighter.
Another part of the equation is that, the operating contract for Lake City, where 90 percent of the military's small-caliber ammunition comes from, is up next year. Watson said Northrop Grumman has bid to continue operating and the Army will probably award the next contract in September. Regardless of contractor, ammunition for the new weapon will be make at Lake City.
“Us and the Army have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Lake City last several years,” he said. “The two largest buildings are now climate-controlled.”
Lesnak noted that Lake City not only produces ammunition for U.S. and NATO forces but also makes over-the-counter ammunition for commercial sales.
“They have about 1,000 working for the government – that's the number I've heard – and all the jobs above that are private ammo,” he said.
“We're very supportive of Northrop Grumman keeping that contract.”