The Ongoing Effort to Arm Ukraine Exposes Problems in the U.S. Defense Industrial Base

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jul 11 2023 |
The Pentagon. Getty Images

The offshoring of so much of our domestic manufacturing makes it harder to ramp up production of things needed for our national defense.

The war in Ukraine just crossed the 500th day mark, and NATO member countries are meeting in Lithuania this week to discuss how best to help Ukraine defend itself against invading Russia.

The United States has led NATO countries in providing weaponry to Ukraine, investing more than $41.3 billion since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022. There’s no doubt that has been critical to Ukraine withstanding the invasion and reclaiming territory, and it is expected that the United States will continue to send weapons and other assistance to Ukraine, particularly as its counter-offensive heats up.

But the war in Ukraine also has exposed weaknesses in America’s ability to make the weapons it and its allies need in times of conflict. Bloomberg reports that Ukraine is facing shortages of “ammunition, electronic components, precision-guided weapons and even cement” — and the United States is also feeling the pinch. James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, writes:

“A number of analyses and war simulations are trying to project where the critical pain points will occur. Guns, missiles and ammunition — especially howitzer shells — are of most concern. Notable among the stockpiles running low are the 155-mm gun rounds that have emerged as the key offensive punch for the Ukrainians. Several analysts believe that Ukraine is burning through a year’s worth of U.S. prewar production monthly.

“While the Department of Defense will continue to protect its own war reserves, the excess armament levels — stockpiled for contingencies beyond basic needs of the U.S. war plans — are very low. And it is not just howitzer rounds: The high-performance HIMARS rockets are in short supply as well, for example.”

The increasingly short supply of weaponry isn’t a state secret; President Biden told CNN over the weekend that the Ukrainians are “running out of that ammunition, and we’re low on it.” That led the Wall Street Journal editorial board to call on Biden and Congress to do something about it.

The problem is that fixing the weaknesses in the U.S. industrial base isn’t as simple as ramping up production, because the United States has offshored so much of it.

Brigadier General John Adams, U.S. Army (Ret.), foresaw many of these problems a decade ago, reporting at the time that the “United States’ national security is threatened by our military’s growing and dangerous reliance on foreign nations for the raw materials, parts, and finished products needed to defend the American people.”

Adams and his team identified a litany of weaknesses and deficiencies in the industrial supply chain due to offshoring, from complex missile systems to the specialty metals needed for night vision googles to the semiconductors needed to power, well, nearly everything. Some of those deficiencies are beginning to be addressed — the CHIPS and Science Act is a good start on the semiconductor front — but a whole lot more work remains.

And this is especially true if you consider that while the war in Ukraine will certainly require additional weaponry, what’s really keeping the Defense Department up at night is the potential for a war with China. Deficiencies in our defense industrial base mean the United States may lose that fight.

Various U.S. agencies and officials have conducted war-game scenarios of a potential conflict between the U.S. and China, Politico recently reported. The result is always the same: The United States runs out of munitions within days. Fixing the problem won’t be easy, Politico notes:

“But a swift response may not be possible, in large part because of how shrunken the U.S. manufacturing base has become since the Cold War. All of a sudden, Washington is reckoning with the fact that so many parts and pieces of munitions, planes, and ships it needs are being manufactured overseas, including in China. Among the deficiencies: components of solid rocket motors, shell casings, machine tools, fuses and precursor elements to propellants and explosives, many of which are made in China and India. Beyond that, skilled labor is sorely lacking, and the learning curve is steep. The U.S. has slashed defense workers to a third of what they were in 1985 — a number that has remained flat — and seen some 17,000 companies leave the industry…”

We hate to say we told you so. But we told you so. Kind of a lot.

All gloating aside, what’s most terrifying about the weakness of the U.S. defense industrial base is that China’s government is fully aware of it. That’s why the Pentagon is worried — our potential enemies are the ones we are counting on for our defense. Here’s some more from that Politico article:

“China and other countries — not all of them friendly — make and supply a lot of that stuff now. Over decades of what many say was delusional thinking by both political parties about turning China into a friendly “stakeholder” in a peaceful international system, Washington heedlessly ceded shipbuilding, aircraft parts and circuit boards over to China and other cheap overseas labor forces. America’s new F-35 fighter jets, for example, contain a magnet component made with an alloy almost exclusively manufactured in China. China also totally dominates machine tools and rare earth metals, essentials for manufacturing missiles and munitions, as well as lithium used in batteries, cobalt and the aluminum and titanium used in semiconductors. While Beijing has made new advances in explosives, most American military explosives are made at a single aging Army plant in Tennessee, Forbes reported in March.”

The Politico piece is really a must-read; I’d encourage you to take the time to read it in full.

A big takeaway is that fixing the many problems in our defense industrial base won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But that doesn’t mean the United States should remain paralyzed, either. It’s time to reawaken the sleeping giant.

In his 2013 report, Adams put forth 10 recommendations to strengthen our defense industrial base, including increasing investment in key high-tech industries; maintaining and strengthening domestic procurement laws to support domestic manufacturers; and developing domestic sources of key natural resources.

To put it more simply, it called for an industrial policy that prioritizes and supports the domestic production of things that are critical to our national defense.

We don’t have time to wait.