Taking ammunition apart

Question of the day: what does one do to get rid of conventional ammunition that has gone past its “use-by” date? And the answer is not: “well, just fire them all off!” No, one applies the three Rs: Recovery, Re-use, Recycle.

And Europe’s newest such plant, owned by Simmel Difesa in Alagni, Italy, is just firing up under the guidance of Bruno Pirozzi. Bought by the Italian branch of France’s Nexter group in 2015, the plant is Nexter’s only demilitarisation plant. It undertook it first destruction task last month.

Pirozzi told FOB that the intention is to be able to recover about 80% of military-grade explosives for re-use in the civil market. “This is a very complex activity,” he explained “because not only do we have to take apart the separate components, the fuse from the grenade, the grenade from its case and so on, but this must all be done in an environmentally friendly way.”

The plant was built a number of years ago, 30kms from Rome, to produce hunting cartridges and was bought by Simmel Difesa in 1999. Restoration started in 2010 to turn it into a state-of-the-art re-processing centre for all types of ammunition and explosives material, from small arms calibre to 203mm artillery projectiles, hand grenades, mortar bombs, rockets, naval mines and torpedoes, land mines, charge demolitions, fuses for high explosive and pyrotechnical devices, rocket motors, and so on.

Each of the separate tasks is undertaken in a room that is armoured and has fire fighting systems such as sprinklers. The process begins with carefully unpacking the ammunition, then disassembling and removing and rendering the primers inert; defusing; cutting the ammunition with cooled saws or in a rotative oven; rendering inert the ammunition and explosives in a tunnel oven; clearing metals and waste that cannot be recyled in a flash oven; and destroying the dirty packaging.

The machine that renders explosives inert

The machine that renders explosives inert

For the time being the plant employs just 10 people but Pirozzi said the idea was to triple this number in the near future and attain an annual turnover of between €7-10m.

Pirozzi explained that the plant already has a number of clients, such as the Italian Defence Ministry which has tasked the plant with destroying anti-tank mines, and Avio, the Italian aerospace engine company that needs to destroy propellant. The plant is to demonstrate its capacity to the French SIMU, the state organisation that handles ammunition stocks for the armed forces. Pirozzi said there is plenty of work not only for this plant but also the several others in Europe, such as MBDA in France, NAMMO in Norway, EXPAL in Spain, one in Germany and two in Italy.

Although there is no “use-by” date on ammunition, the year of manufacture is generally marked on the casing and it lasts about a decade, depending on the way it has been stored. But Pirozzi said even when ammunition is very degraded, the colour code on the casing gives a clear indication to demilitarisation plants as to what they might expect to find inside. For example, anything blue is for training purposes and anything grey will contain smoke. Pirozzi remarked with a smile that few people knew that the paint they used on the walls of their house or the match they use to light the candles for a romantic dinner may in fact very well contain white phosphorus that has been recycled from incendiary devices!