Reimagining the arsenal of democracy

By Around the Web

Marines conduct maintenance on an M1A1 Abrams Tank during an exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, Dec. 13, 2019, as a part of Steel Knight 20, which tests the ability to conduct full-scale operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt., Miguel A. Rosales)
Marines conduct maintenance on an M1A1 Abrams Tank during an exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, Dec. 13, 2019, as a part of Steel Knight 20, which tests the ability to conduct full-scale operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt., Miguel A. Rosales)

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire.]

By Dominique L. Plewes
Real Clear Wire

America’s “arsenal of democracy” is not the vending machine — money in, weapons out — that so many pundits and policymakers seem to assume. It’s an unimaginably complex and finite network of public and private physical infrastructure, intellectual property, global supply chains, and of course special-interest politics. Yet, no matter how vehemently Washington argues about whether the United States should continue to arm our embattled allies, no one seems to ask how we can best do so. This needs to change, and quickly. Because right now, the facts on the ground — in Ukraine, Israel, and across our military supply chains — represent grave security and strategic threat.

With this in mind, the most dangerous feature of Congress’s recent debate about foreign aid legislation was neither its divisiveness nor any one side’s misconceptions. Rather, it was all sides’ blinkered detachment from the serious challenges: exhausted stockpiles, diminished production capacity, and outdated thinking. These shortfalls are already undermining U.S. national security, let alone our ability to help our allies.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ latest war against Israel did not create any of the problems now besetting America’s defense industrial base. They only exposed and exacerbated longstanding shortcomings that most Americans would be shocked to learn even exist.

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For instance, the 2,000 artillery shells Ukraine’s army is firing every day is not only just one-fifth the number of shells the Russians are firing back, it’s also more than the United States is even capable of manufacturing right now. Our enervated defense industrial capacity is one reason why, at any given moment, one-third of the roughly 350 howitzer guns Western allies have donated to Ukraine are out of action. According to an analysis by the non-profit Center for Strategic and International Studies, America’s current production capacity would need five years to replenish America’s supplies of 155mm shells and Javelin missiles. The hard truth is that our weapons reserves were already bare, and our supply chains were already strained before the advent of the Ukrainian and Middle East conflicts.

The war in Israel has exacerbated all of the above challenges, and exposed yet another: the economic asymmetry of modern warfare. Iran’s April 14 attack against Israel illustrates the point. The attack consisted of roughly 300 drones and missiles. According to an analysis by a scholar at MIT, Iran’s unmanned military aircraft (equipped with ever-cheaper targeting technology) can be built for about $20,000 each, while each cruise missile costs $100,000. By contrast, the Sidewinder missiles the U.S. Air Force uses to intercept them cost us $500,000 a pop. The problem here sounds fiscal, but it’s actually strategic. Is the United States really willing to continue the practice of shooting down $20,000 drones with $500,000 missiles?

Our adversaries are carefully monitoring both our choice of weapons and how we use them. Especially in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party is well aware that recent Pentagon war-games simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan concluded that U.S. “stocks of precision and standoff weapons [would be] expended in as little as a few days.”

These facts do not by themselves argue either for a more hawkish or non-interventionist U.S. foreign policy. The point is simply that current events — while we’re still technically at peace — have already “exposed the fragility” of our defense industrial base — a fragility that is leaving our allies and homeland more vulnerable by the week.

Nor is this story new. Americans learned all about the inadequacy of our global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic. We learned in Afghanistan and Iraq (to say nothing of Vietnam) how asymmetric, low-budget, analog tactics could neutralize our technological advantages on the battlefield.

We watched for decades as our defense industrial base acted in the interests of corporate profits rather than national security. As early as the 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara urged defense contractors to be more “efficient,” dangerously unaware of the life-and-death difference between demand cycles for cars vs. munitions. More recently, we’ve witnessed a post-Cold War consolidation of the defense industry. The Pentagon’s network of “prime contractors” has shrunk from 51 companies in 1993 to five today.

Today, this consolidated defense industrial base is hollowed out and overstretched. There is plenty of blame to go around for it — in both parties, on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, and in both the public and private sectors. But rather than litigate responsibility for past mistakes, policymakers must quickly take responsibility for correcting them. And they must do it now, while there is still time not merely to rebuild America’s arsenal of democracy — but to reimagine it.

And “reimagine” is the word. The recent rash of weapons programs with Hollywood-inspired names, like Replicator, are a welcome addition to the national defense conversation. But we need more than a few cleverly named programs. We need to transform our industrial base, prioritizing creativity, flexibility, and speed.

To do that, we must rekindle old relationships and build new private-sector partnerships.

The many wars of this century have proven the persistent value of pre-information age materiel and asymmetric strategies. Spending $825 billion every year on national defense does Americans no good if with all that money we build a ponderous, short-sighted military Goliath in a world of sling-wielding challengers. To defend ourselves, our allies, and the future, we have to be David.

We have to build a defense manufacturing infrastructure tailored to our strategic needs, not the other way around. What does that look like?

First, Congress and the Pentagon need to change incentives for our defense manufacturers to fuel a rapid upscaling of production capacity (that, under ideal circumstances, will never be used).

A more stable, streamlined, future-focused congressional budgeting process could create a system capable of supplying the U.S. military and allied nations whenever needs arise. Washington could also establish an industrial reserve policy similar to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve: paying companies to maintain excess capacity and warehouse critical components.

The Pentagon, in turn, can reform the way it does business with contractors. It can refine procurement and acquisition practices to eliminate those infamous $640 toilet seats. It can examine the value of longer-term supply contracts and encourage investment in new manufacturing approaches and technologies such as robotic assembly and additive manufacturing. It can “onshore” or “friendshore” production of critical components. Finally, it can expand its supplier base, and strengthen the resiliency of our supply chain by reviving the practice of “second sourcing.”

Some of these changes may seem disruptive. But remember, we are spending more on national defense than ever before. And the status quo has exhausted our stockpiles, kneecapped our production capacity, compromised the real-world effectiveness of the weapons we do have, and left multiple allies on the brink of national annihilation. Maybe some disruption is long overdue.

Washington will always argue about when to use our arsenal of democracy. But there should be no debate about guaranteeing to the American people, our allies, and our adversaries (a) that the arsenal will always be there for us, and (b) that it always works as intended when called upon. Today it’s not, and it doesn’t.

Dominique L. Plewes is founder of 501(c)3 Special Operations Forces (SOF) Support Foundation, dedicated to educating Americans on the purposes and uses of our special operations forces.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.


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