North Carolina’s secret weapon in the war in Ukraine: Military ammo shipping spikes at Sunny Point

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As the United States ramps up $25.7 billion of military aid to Ukraine, an obscure port at the North Carolina coast is turning out to be a major player in ammo shipments and the logistical battle in the war following Russia’s invasion in 2022.

The largest military port in the world is tucked along the west side of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County near the town of Southport. Known by locals simply as Sunny Point, the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point handles the import and export of weapons, ammunition, explosives and military equipment for the United States Army.

Sunny Point is well known to locals, but with so many new residents to moving to the area each year — not to mention the constant coastal vacationers — the port is not known or mystery to many.

Hidden behind the 16,000 acres of high security is a complex of bunkers where bombs and other explosives are stored to separate them from other groups in case of an explosion.

Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. DVIDS image

The entire Sunny Point complex — which features its own military rail line — has a blast area of three miles around to help protect a fast-growing population from explosions of items such as rockets, missiles, howitzers, grenades, projectiles, and pyrotechnics.

The blast area expands east across the Cape Fear River onto Pleasure Island in New Hanover County, where nothing is allowed to be built.

Sunny Point is the key ammunition shipping point on the Atlantic Coast, the Army’s primary East Coast deep-water port, and one of a handful of Department of Defense terminals equipped to handle containerized ammunition.

Shipping at Sunny Point since Ukraine invasion

Since 2019, the port has seen a more than 50 percent increase in tonnage shipped, according to data provided to CBS 17 by the 596th Transportation Brigade, which oversees Sunny Point.

Shipments to Ukraine as of last month include 2.1 million rounds of artillery, about 5,000 air defense missiles, 308,000 anti-tank rounds or systems and 408 million rounds for small arms, according to U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees Sunny Point.

Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. DVIDS image

In high-profile report in late 2022, the U.S. Transcom general noted Sunny Point handled 2,000 containers of ammunition and other equipment headed for Europe in the opening months of the war.

The amount of ammo and other military gear shipped at Sunny Point has soared since 2020 when there 120,522 measurement tons handled. In 2022 and 2023, the number was around 183,000 for each year, the 596th Transportation Brigade reports.

Built during the Korean War, Sunny Point serves as a transfer point between trucks, railroads, and ships for moving weapons, military equipment, and ammunition.

With three wharves, the terminal can handle six container vessels simultaneously and has a greater ammunition handling capability than all other Department of Defense munitions terminals combined.

Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. DVIDS image

Security concerns at the North Carolina coast

Poland has recently witnessed a string of fires, and officials have been investigating whether these could be the results of sabotage by Russian or Belarusian secret services in reaction to Polish support for Ukraine.

“Wherever we’re fighting is where we’re likely sending or receiving cargo,” Steven Kerr, the Sunny Point deputy to the commander, said last year.

Harbor police on the Cape Fear River at Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. DVIDS image

At Sunny Point, a large buffer assists with security. On the Cape Fear River, there are special security rules ordering all but cleared vessels to enter the Sunny Point area. Even boats in the main Cape Fear channel are ordered to keep moving past Sunny Point as they head upstream to the main Port of Wilmington or exit the river.

But, a large study by the Cape Fear Council of Governments in 2019 found the rail line to Sunny Point is an issue. That study recommended the U.S. Government obtain full ownership of the rail corridor to Leland to “explore options for sealing the corridor, to the extent practical, to limit trespassing and other unauthorized entry.”

Google maps image

Also of concern in the report is access to the road leading to Sunny Point’s northern gate on Plantation Road. That road poses security issues given the remoteness of the area and lack of other activity along the road, officials said.

Coastal population growth a worry

The 2019 report, which focused “joint land use,” found the growing population is a concern. Brunswick County is the state’s fastest-growing county by population.

When the U.S. Army first scouted for a military terminal location in 1950, Brunswick County’s population stood at just over 19,000, and Southport, just down-river from Sunny Point had only 1,700 residents.

The county now has more than 150,000 residents — and a massive amount of seasonal vacationers to various beach towns and communities.

Boiling Spring Lakes and Leland have grown along either end of the Sunny Point rail corridor, with estimated populations of 6,400 and nearly 29,000.

The concerns about Sunny Point include traffic — and how people might evacuate during an explosion or massive safety problem. Other concerns are the large populations along the rail corridors — where all the explosives are carried and where an incident could create a deadly and damaging explosion.

In addition, the rail crossings now must deal with much more road traffic than in the past, making a collision between a vehicle and train more possible. One recommendation in the plan includes spending money to create more overpass crossings.

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