“As I said from the beginning, this fight is not going to be cheap,” President Joe Biden soberly cautioned back in May, “but caving to aggression would even be more costly.” Biden urged the nation to reassume its role as the world’s foremost “arsenal of democracy,” which would redound to the benefit not just of the globe’s anti-authoritarian powers but also the nation’s domestic arms manufacturers, which are the primary recipients of these congressional disbursements. But as the war in Ukraine drags on, Biden’s proposition has become even more expensive than he let on.
Last week, U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro unloaded on the American defense industry for its apparent inability to keep up with increased orders amid the rapid deterioration of the international security environment. When asked if the supply-chain issues affecting the armaments industry could put the U.S. in a position of having to choose between the need to “arm itself or arm Ukraine,” the secretary could not dismiss the premise. “I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet,” Del Toro replied, “but if the conflict does go on for another six months, for another year, it certainly continues to stress the supply chain in ways that are challenging.”
The comments caused a stir, particularly among critics of the West’s effort to provide for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s war of conquest. “I’m not as forgiving of the defense industrial base,” Del Toro later added. “They now need to invest in their people, again, their workforce, as well as the capital investments that they have to make within their own companies to get their production rates up.”
Del Toro isn’t the only one who has recently expressed concerns about America’s ability to defend itself and its allies. “What would happen if something blew up in Indo-Pacom?” the Pentagon’s head of acquisitions, William LaPlante, asked in November. “What do we have in any degree of quantity? That will actually be effective?” The State Department’s approval of $428 million in aircraft parts to keep Taiwan’s F-16s in the air notwithstanding, a potential ordnance shortfall looms large in the minds of American war planners.
The matter of how we quickly resolve this threat to our strategic capabilities is as important as understanding how we got here. It’s no accident that the United States now faces an armaments crisis. To an unnerving degree, America’s inventory problems were engineered.
In the last decade, the United States engaged in a dramatic drawdown of its domestic defense industry’s capabilities. The production line for the shoulder-fired Stinger air-defense missile system was closed in December 2020, only for Raytheon to win a contract to ramp up production again in July 2021. By then, however, only one facility could make the thing. And not quickly, given the limited stockpiles of the missile’s constituent parts.
High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) munitions are also in short supply, and for the same reason. Production of this multiple-launch rocket system, which has had singular success in ejecting Russians from their entrenched positions in occupied Ukraine, was shut down by the Army from 2014 to 2018. Nations such as Poland, Lithuania, and Taiwan have put in orders for this effective weapons platform, but production lines are strained, and Ukraine has privileged access to remaining ammunition stockpiles. For weapons buyers such as LaPlante, the whole affair is just inexplicable. “The thing now that is saving Ukraine, and that everybody around the world wants,” he observed, “we stopped production of it.”
Just days ago, a detachment of Ukrainian soldiers landed in the United States to begin training on the sophisticated Patriot missile system. America had been hesitant to share with Kyiv this anti-air weapon, which can shoot down incoming cruise and ballistic missiles. They required U.S. operators to use, and Washington had ruled out American “boots on the ground” in Ukraine. The U.S. and Germany have overcome that initial aversion, but the relative scarcity of these platforms will increasingly become an issue. And those platforms are also in short supply despite increasingly high demand.
The frustrations expressed by U.S. officials like Del Toro and LaPlante are understandable. Despite the Pentagon’s outsize budget, high demand for U.S.-built weapons platforms and munitions, and a global threat environment that has been degenerating for a decade, the arms industry just can’t keep up. And this sector cannot place all the blame on disruptions associated with the pandemic. Among the challenges the industry has confronted are “fears among defense companies that they would be stuck with unwanted arms when the Ukraine war winds down,” Reuters reported. Likewise, according to ABC News, “keeping a production line open is expensive, and the Army had other spending priorities.”
“U.S. defense production lines are not scaled to supply a major land war,” ABC’s dispatch continued. But why? Chinese expansionism into the South China sea, where it seizes land and menaces U.S. and allied assets, is a decade-old project. Moscow demonstrated its willingness to use force to invade and annex territory in Europe nine years ago, which occurred six years after it carved up its neighbor in Central Asia. In the Middle East, revisionist powers willing to use chemical weapons on civilians, attack critical civilian infrastructure (like the world’s largest petroleum processing facility), and hold U.S. naval personnel and ships hostage have been a fact of life.
America’s material deficiencies make little sense given the nature of these growing threats and the great sums of capital the nation has invested in its defense. The most disturbing revelation is that resolving these issues isn’t a question of money, demand, or awareness about the fact that we live in an ever more dangerous world. It is a question of will. Or, rather, the lack thereof.