News: Bucks for bullets: ATACS sorts ammo, saves money, strengthens manpower
Story by Sgt. John Carkeet IV
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – In October 2013, soldiers from the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), an Army Reserve unit headquartered in Orlando, Fla., arrived at the Ammunition Supply Point (ASP) at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
That's where they discovered a backlog of more than a million rounds of unsorted small arms ammunition.
“The ASP at Camp Arifjan stores ammunition and other items to help warfighters accomplish their mission,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Guillermo Matos, the ammunition logistical noncommissioned officer in charge for the 143rd ESC. “Millions of rounds come through the ASP as they make their way into and out of theater, and we simply didn't have the manpower to inspect every round that lacked a lot number.”
Within walking distance from the concrete bunkers that housed these unsorted rounds sits the Automated Tactical Ammunition Classification System (ATACS), a machine with the power to resolve the problem literally piling up at the ASP. To the Army’s disappointment, the ATACS laid dormant as its complex assortment of belts, cameras and computers collected dust rather than bullets.
“The ATACS had been down for months before we arrived,” said Matos, an Active Guard Reserve soldier currently living in Kissimmee, Fla. “Everything was getting sorted by hand. The 143rd and the down trace units managing the ASP knew that we needed to get that machine and running, but we didn't have the technical tools and skills to do it ourselves.”
After two months of sending email, completing paperwork and making phone calls, Cybernet Systems, the company that designed the ATACS, flew in a pair of technicians to bring the only machine situated in Southwest Asia back to life.
“There are only five [ATACS] machines in existence,” said Spc. Zackary T. Helman, an ammunition stock control and accounting specialist for the 371st Sustainment Brigade, an Army National Guard unit based in Springfield, Ohio. “We are very fortunate to have a machine that does the work of a company [of soldiers].”
Helman, a native of London, Ohio, received a week of formal training in preparation for keeping the ATACS operational.
“My training consisted of basic troubleshooting and maintenance,” said Helman. “I learned how to hook in and power on the machine. I also cleaned the cameras and verified the primers and casings of every round that went into the ATACS.”
During his direct involvement with the ATACS, Helman would configure the machine to inspect and sort specific types of ammunition.
“The ATACS can process any small caliber round from 5.56 mm to .50-caliber,” said Helman. “You can even set the machine to sort mixed batches of ammunition.”
When the ATACS became operational again in November 2013, nearly every service member and contractor associated with the ASP noticed the enhanced efficiency.
“Productivity has gone through the roof,” said Helman. “This machine can sort 30,000 to 40,000 rounds in an eight-hour day. I don't think 100 people could inspect that many rounds in one day.”
“In one week [the ATACS] ran through about 200,000 rounds of 9 [mm],” Matos added. “In a month we can run up to a million rounds of 9 [mm].”
Thanks to the ATACS, Helman and his comrades may perform other tasks essential to the 371st SB's mission.
“Without the machine, we would be out here every day inspecting bullets,” said Helman. “The ATACS frees us up to inspect and manage other sites around the ASP.”
In addition to bolstering the ASP's limited manpower, the ATACS has also eased the burden of American taxpayers.
“We ran a total of 614,000 rounds in December ,” said Matos. “Only 172,000 rounds were rejected. The remaining 442,000 serviceable rounds saved the government about $75,000 just in that month alone.”
“The machine has paid for itself,” said Helman. “Most of the rounds the ATACS processes were originally carried by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that found their way back here. For every good round the ATACS finds is one less round we have to order.”
Despite its impressive capabilities, the ATACS comes with its share of challenges.
“We had problems with jams and double feeds, but a new belt fixed that problem.” said Helman. “Dust storms would also clog up the cameras, so we would need to shut down the machine to blow the sand out.”
“Rain can also be a show stopper,” said Matos. “The recent storms have flooded roads and stopped operations [at the ASP]. Power outages and vehicle break downs may also keep us from feeding ammunition into the machine. These show stoppers do not hinder our overall mission as we have contingency plans in place ... Thanks to the ATACS, we are also ahead of schedule in terms of inspecting and sorting ammo.”
The 371st SB and the 143rd ESC are slotted to redeploy later this year. As Matos and Helman take the initial steps to transitioning back to the United States, they take a moment to reflect on their involvement with the ATACS.
“Firearms and computers have fascinated me long before I joined the National Guard,” said Helman. “Working on the ATACS gave me an opportunity to simultaneously work in both fields.”
“Getting the ATACS back up and running was one of the 143rd ESC's greatest accomplishments during this deployment,” said Matos. “We should be proud that the ammo sorted by the ATACS will not fail our warfighters in the field.”