Lawmakers worry about weapons-makers’ ability to meet demand
War in Ukraine and supply chain challenges have strained the defense industrial base
U.S. lawmakers are sounding the alarm about challenges facing the U.S. defense industrial base as the war in Ukraine strains weapon supplies.
It could take years to replenish certain types of weapons the U.S. has sent to Kyiv, with no easy way to ramp up production quickly. That has policymakers deeply concerned about whether the U.S. would be able to field enough weapons if conflict broke out in the Taiwan Strait.
The House Armed Services Committee is set to examine the defense industrial base during its second hearing of the year on Wednesday.
“This ought to be a flashing red light for us, and it's shocking to me,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said during an event at the American Enterprise Institute in late January. “This is a huge, glaring problem. And right now I don't see the sort of all-hands-on-deck commitment to try to address that.”
The issue could prove crucial as Congress considers its annual defense policy legislation. After President Joe Biden sends Congress his fiscal 2024 budget in March, the defense committees will begin compiling the mammoth bill, with a House markup expected in the late spring or summer.
“We need to increase that ability to surge when we need it, which means we desperately need to increase our manufacturing base for key weapons systems,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a Fox News interview. “It's a huge priority for our committee to increase that production capacity.”
According to a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. could run out of critical weapons like long-range, precision-guided munitions less than a week into a possible Taiwan Strait war.
The report stresses that U.S. aid to Ukraine is not the problem in and of itself, since a war in the Indo-Pacific would largely require different types of weapons. But the sheer number of munitions required to sustain Ukraine — where the U.S. is not even actively involved — clarifies how quickly stockpiles could be depleted if another war broke out.
“The war in Ukraine has shown us that our industrial base is not prepared,” said CSIS International Security Program director Seth G. Jones, the report’s author. “It's not producing the kinds of munitions and materiel we need for a conventional war and for conventional deterrence. So, you know, it's a wake-up call.”
Part of the problem, Jones said, is that defense contractors cut back on production of certain weapons when there’s less need for them, making it difficult to scale up quickly when demand surges.
It could take seven years to restore U.S. inventories of 155mm precision-guided munitions, eight years to replace Javelin anti-tank missile systems and 18 years to replace Stinger surface-to-air missiles, according to a CSIS analysis of how long it would take at recent production rates to replenish weapon inventories.
If the Defense Department surges production by committing more funding, those timelines speed up significantly — but still linger in the multiyear range, according to that analysis.
“What industry will tell you is that the reason that they don't have the ability to make as many weapons as we now need is because they don't want to make that major investment without what they refer to as a demand signal, without knowing that we're going to buy them,” Smith said. “Predicting future conflict is actually more difficult than it looks. U.S. taxpayers don't want to spend a ton of money on weapons that we don't need.”
Lawmakers made some policy changes with an eye to defense industrial base issues in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law last December.
The legislation authorized the Pentagon to establish multiyear contracts for certain weapons the U.S. has been providing to Ukraine, including Patriot missile interceptors, Stingers and 155mm rounds. It also authorized multiyear contracts for munitions that could be critical to Taiwan’s defense, such as long-range anti-ship missiles.
Multiyear contracts encourage higher production rates because contractors can count on a stable supply of funding over longer periods of time.
“In the last NDAA, we put specific language in to encourage the production of munitions because we're using so much — particularly artillery shells,” Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “So we are very, very conscious of our industrial base.”
Defense Department officials maintain they’re aware of the challenges and have been working to address them. During a media roundtable in late January, Douglas Bush, the assistant Army secretary for acquisition, said the Pentagon is working now to develop multiyear contracts based on the new authorities Congress provided in the NDAA.
He also said he was confident in the department’s ability to speed up production of critical weapons should war break out in the Indo-Pacific.
“What I have seen from this ramp-up is, I do believe we are capable of ramping up quickly, because we’re doing it right now, and I believe that American industry can and would respond,” Bush said. “I think there are really important policy questions to think through regarding how big the war reserves need to be, how much planning we do for mobilization in advance, and how much resources we’re willing to put against this need.”
With a new Republican majority in the House eager to probe the Biden administration’s shortcomings, the state of the defense industrial base and its readiness for a major conflict is likely to remain a major topic in the months ahead.
An Air Force general last week suggested the U.S. could be at war with China by 2025, though the Pentagon has since distanced itself from those remarks.
“We're on a peacetime footing with our industrial base, and we don't have the ability with these high-tech, high-end weapons to start, to flip a switch and start mass-producing them,” said Republican Michael Waltz of Florida, chair of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. “So we're going to be pushing the Pentagon hard to come to us with solutions.”
The growing concern over challenges to the defense industrial base also comes amid swirling rumors that House Republicans may seek to cut defense funding as part of a broader effort to curtail spending to fiscal 2022 levels.
Although key Republican committee leaders like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger of Texas have balked at significant defense cuts, other lawmakers have signaled they are open to “trimming waste” at the Pentagon, including by going after “woke” programs they see as politically controversial.
But most Republicans remain solidly supportive of assisting Ukraine and deterring China and would likely sign off on another hefty Pentagon budget alongside Democrats.
“I think we all believe that our military industrial complex has been under stress,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during a press conference in January. “We're running out of weapons, so now's not the time to go cheap on our military.”
Jones, the author of the CSIS report, stressed that the investments in weapons for which he’s advocating don’t necessarily need a significant budget boost — just a refocus on munitions that are critical to deterrence.
“I would say even if the defense budget stayed the same, or even as the defense budget decreased, these steps should be taken regardless,” he said. “So that would just mean reprioritizing what the department is spending its money on.”
Beyond Congress’ critical power-of-the-purse role, Jones said, it can help address the problems through oversight and accountability of the Pentagon and the State Department, which is responsible for foreign military sales.
“Congress is going to have to hold the executive branch’s feet to the fire on this, year after year,” Jones said.