United States support for Ukraine has exposed a serious strategic weakness: flaws in our Defense Industrial Base (DIB). During a recent conference on defense acquisition, Bill LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, explained that the big lesson of U.S. material support for Ukraine is that “production matters.” By supplying weapon systems to Ukraine, we have depleted our own stockpiles of weapons, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and air-defense systems. Production of these critical systems lags.
This has created problems for the United States, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, where we face our primary strategic challenge from China. The Japanese newspaper Nikkei reported in early October that some parts of planned joint drills between Japan’s ground forces and U.S. Marines were canceled due to a lack of shells for the U.S. HIMARS launching systems.
During World War II, the United States was the “arsenal of democracy.” Our ability to arm allies and friends helped lead to victory in the Cold War. But over time, a number of market factors led to a contraction of the U.S. defense industrial base. The resulting emphasis on efficiency led to a “just in time” approach to defense acquisition, which prioritized stockpiling weapons over production. According to LaPlante, what the Pentagon has conveyed to U.S. defense companies in recent times is “Don’t go into production if you don’t have to. If you do, absolutely bring it down to the lowest number you can,” he said. “We all accepted the fact that ‘just-in-time’ economy was the way to go.”
“Just in time” may make sense for civilian industry, but it is imprudent to believe that we can determine just exactly “how much is enough” in wartime. Prudence dictates that in terms of combat power and production to support it, we want a large margin of error. We don’t want to “barely” win. We want to overwhelm our adversaries.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island conducted an annual global war game designed to determine what was necessary to win in a confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO). As an NWC faculty member at the time, I had occasion to run the defense mobilization cell, which focused on providing material support to U.S.-NATO forces in a sustained war with the WTO. One of the lessons we learned was the necessity of an industrial policy for the DIB.
With the end of the Cold War, we entered an era of “strategic happy talk” that postulated the end of great power politics. Defense production could now be deemphasized. The rise of China and Russian aggression in Ukraine demonstrate the flaws in such optimistic thinking. As the eminent strategic thinker Colin Gray once wrote, history teaches that “bad times return.”
As was the case during the Cold War, the current defense problems are systemic. While much of the blame lies with the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution (PPBE) process (the Department of Defense’s internal methodology for allocating resources to provide necessary defense capabilities), it is also the case that the U.S. defense acquisition system places emphasis on prototyping and experimentation, meaning that promising systems tend to remain as prototypes. As we deplete our own stockpiles in order to support Ukraine, we need to place more emphasis on production.
Fixing the defense acquisition process requires congressional action. The Defense Department will need new authorities. These include multi-year authority and funding for the industrial base.
Congress seems to recognize the problem. Lawmakers recently established a commission on PPBE reform, assigned with reviewing and recommending changes to the cumbersome defense budgeting process. LaPlante described the commission’s mandate as leveling the legs of the stool: acquisition, programming and requirements by making the process more agile and responsive to changing circumstances, such as those arising from our support to Ukraine.
The defense acquisition process seems arcane and certainly lacks the flair of strategy and operational art but it is critically important. Strategy cannot be executed without the necessary material support. We need to recognize the flaws in the process that our support to Ukraine has revealed and correct them. The commission on PPBE reform is a useful start but Congress needs to follow through. Otherwise we may find ourselves without the weapon systems necessary to execute a global strategy in defense of U.S. interests.