From Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to China’s saber-rattling with Taiwan to North Korea’s escalating missile tests to Iran’s supplying Russia with lethal drones and enriching uranium for nuclear weapons, our adversaries continue to increase their aggression around the world.
The United States, meanwhile, finds itself with an insufficient inventory of munitions for its own war plans and those of its partners, and lacks the industrial capacity to address this situation quickly. When it comes to munitions, our military has fallen behind. The United States needs to be prepared and to significantly improve its capacity for today’s — and tomorrow’s — threats. Agricultural Chain
As the Ukraine war has shown, munitions, from conventional bullets to smart bombs, can have a massive impact on force effectiveness. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the Department of Defense (DOD) has pushed its Defense Industrial Base (DIB) to consolidate and reduce capacity. No one party or administration is to blame; several longstanding adverse trends have led to the munition supply chain problems.
The DOD’s weapon acquisition process itself is one primary issue. Historically, DOD has prioritized the future fight over current conflicts; most recently, in fact, administration budgets have allocated more funding to research and development than to procurement. In the fiscal year 2023 budget, ammunition procurement funding is flat. With inflation, this means a significant decline in buying power. In fact, for several items, such as Javelins, TOW anti-tank missiles, HIMARS rocket systems and precision artillery munitions, the DOD has sent more munitions to Ukraine than it procures in an entire year. The DIB can only produce munitions with the funding the DOD provides — so if the Pentagon wants to increase the industrial capacity for munitions, its own procurement budget must reflect that.
An additional hurdle for the DIB is restrictive indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts for munitions. One-year, unpredictable contracts do not give enough lead time for industry to react to an increase in demand — such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Limited pricing on one-year buys of sporadic quantities will not stimulate industry investment in critical production lines. Switching to multi-year contracts for munitions is one viable solution that would allow industry to accelerate production and expand its capacity. The extended timeframes and reasonable, predictable funding with long-lead purchases would result in a stable production line workforce and incentivize producers to invest in advanced equipment and technologies — ultimately enhancing national security. The current DOD and congressional leadership indicated interest in this approach, with DOD awarding a $1 billion-plus contract for munitions supporting Ukraine and the just-completed NDAA adding some multi-years, which now must be funded.
The DOD also should award contracts to more than one manufacturer. Losing out on a major contract can spell doom for smaller defense businesses and drive them out of the market. Choosing more than one producer would protect the DIB, increase competition, and lead to innovation and a better deal for taxpayers. We need to bring back second sources.
Another problem with the current munitions model is the source for some of the main components for these weapons, such as the rare earth mineral antimony. Currently, the world’s largest (and among the only) suppliers of antimony are China and Russia. With no domestic antimony mining industry, the U.S. is vulnerable to foreign supply chain disruption. This problem extends beyond just antimony: the value of the national defense stockpile of strategic minerals has plummeted from a high of $42 billion during the Cold War to $888 million last year. The U.S. must invest and set better standards for the stockpile to ensure it has enough to fulfill its strategic requirements — which, under the National Defense Strategy, includes the ability to fight one war while deterring another — and to support its allies and partners such as Ukraine and Taiwan.
Drawing from history, “Freedom’s Forge” in World War II demonstrated a monumental success in private industry coordination to build the “arsenal of democracy.” This strategy positioned the U.S. as both a military superpower and a reliable support system for the Allies. The arsenal of democracy reached a massive output. We produced more that 170 aircrafts per day and built 807 cruisers, destroyers and escorts, 203 submarines, 88,410 tanks, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns, and 41 billion rounds of ammunition over the course of five years.
If we were able to increase capacity then, we can do so today. Congress and the DOD need to better incentivize industry to deal with some of these challenges in order to strengthen the DIB. This includes finding other, more reliable sources for rare earth materials, such as domestic sources for antimony, or building strategic partnerships with allies that would help shore up their own industrial capacities and reduce the burden on the U.S.
With the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, now is a perfect time for Congress to turn its attention to the important mission of securing the munitions supply chain. With the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Defense Appropriations bill yet to be passed, Congress still has time to switch to multi-year munitions contracts. Another smart proposal — the Investing in American Technologies Act from Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Jacky Rosen (D-N.V.), would allow the Secretary of Defense to guarantee loans by venture capital to invest in small businesses critical for DOD. Unfortunately, the bipartisan provision was stripped out of the current version of the NDAA — but it’s not too late for congressional leaders to add it back into a final version.
As George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” Congress and the Biden administration must act now to ensure we heed Washington’s words.
Arnold L. Punaro is a retired U.S. Marine major general and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He served in Vietnam, was commanding general of the 4th Marine Division, 1997-2000, and is the author of “The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force.” Follow him on Twitter @ArnoldLPunaro.
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