Empty Arsenal of Democracy

In a 1940 speech, President Franklin Roosevelt labeled Detroit the “arsenal of democracy.” During World War II, Detroit alone built tens of thousands of tanks and other ground vehicles, aircraft, bombs, and guns. Much of the rest of our economy was dedicated to defense production.

To give some idea of how our economy was functioning at the height of that war, the Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point shipyard in Baltimore was turning out one Liberty-class cargo ship every day. (The Sparrows Point shipyard closed in 2012.)

Biden needs to invoke the Defense Production Act to require that industry set aside commercial contracts and concentrate not only on Ukraine’s needs but also to replenish our stockpile of weapons and ammunition.

Those industries that could convert from civilian to defense production — sometimes neither quickly nor inexpensively — were referred to even in post-war years as the “defense industrial base.”

But since World War II the preservation of domestic industrial capacity and capability needed in wartime has never been a national priority.

The defense industrial base has shrunk enormously since the Korean War for three reasons. First, and foremost, is the fact that technologies have improved so quickly. Everything more sophisticated than a rifle or pistol is computer-controlled and, thus, depends on semiconductors, the production of which is vastly cheaper abroad. We are dependent on Taiwan — and Malaysia and China — for almost all of our semiconductors.

The second reason is that many defense industries — such as shipbuilding — have not been able to compete in the international market. In the early 1980s, there were about 26 major U.S. shipyards. Now, there are only seven capable of building ships for the Navy.

The third reason is that business needs have led to enormous consolidation of the defense industries, especially aerospace. Consolidation has not reduced capabilities but it — almost always — reduced capacity.

The result is that our defense industrial base is no longer capable of supplying the Pentagon’s needs in time of conflict, even one in which we aren’t directly engaged.

Our forces expend considerable amounts of munitions in training. More importantly, stockpiles of munitions have to be maintained according to war plans. What we need for a real war — one in which U.S. forces are engaged, not a proxy war such as Ukraine — has to be produced and stockpiled. Now, that’s not being done.

President Biden’s only good foreign policy decision has been to help Ukraine survive the war Russian President Putin began a year ago. But while Biden has sent — and is sending — vast quantities of arms and munitions to Ukraine, he is not replenishing our stockpile as quickly as we may need it.

Biden has sent roughly one-third of our Javelin anti-tank missiles and one third of our Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Ukraine is expending those weapons and others faster than we can manufacture them.

We normally produce between 1,000 and 2,100 Javelins each year. The Army is trying to get industry to up the rate to 4,000 each year. Faint hope.

By some estimates, Ukraine is firing six to seven thousand 155 mm artillery shells every day. At that rate, they could expend the entirety of Britain’s stockpile of NATO-standard 155 mm shells in just eight days. Ammunition for the U.S. HIMARS (high-mobility artillery rocket system) and other munitions are also being expended at tremendous rates.

The problem we are having is that, despite some efforts to stimulate production in the U.S., the supply is lagging far behind the demand.

According to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report I mentioned last week, some credible estimates are that we would run out of ammunition — missiles, artillery shells, etc. — in one week if the Chinese attacked Taiwan at this point and if — a big “if” — Biden decided to defend Taiwan. He has said we would do so four times and each time his cabinet has assured the Taiwanese that we hadn’t changed our “One China” policy, which means we wouldn’t defend Taiwan.

The problem is greatly exacerbated by supply chain problems. A friend of mine who is the CEO of a medium-sized aerospace firm that produces, among other things, radar systems told me that parts he orders today can’t be delivered for at least eighteen months.

At least part of the solution is found in the Defense Production Act, under which the government can require U.S. industries to set aside commercial orders in favor of Pentagon needs. Former president Trump used the DPA in part of his Operation Warp Speed plan to manufacture COVID vaccines quickly. It worked.

Biden could, but hasn’t, done the same in favor of production of munitions needed in Ukraine. Biden has dabbled in industrial policy in, for example, his Inflation Reduction Act (which has nothing in it to reduce inflation) by trying to stimulate semiconductor production in America. But he has done nothing to make our defense industrial base qualify as the arsenal of democracy.

The European Union, as we have come to expect, is outraged by that and other “stimuli” in the IRA. They are planning to retaliate against American exports.

As always, it comes down to money and timing. Biden doesn’t want to spend a lot on weapon systems and munitions except to supply Ukraine. He may yet try to do so, but only at the expense of other Pentagon needs.

In March, Congress passed a supplemental appropriation of $13.6 billion for Ukraine aid. Part of that — about $1.45 billion — has been given to the Army and Marines to replenish our stock of Javelins. Biden has asked for another $33 billion to help supply Ukraine. Some of that money should be used to restore our stockpile if all the munitions purchased by those funds aren’t sent to Ukraine. Biden has given no signal that they will be.

At least one supplier, Raytheon — which manufactures the Stinger missile — has reportedly said they can’t produce more because they can’t obtain parts and materials.

Our national security depends on our industrial base, such as it is today. Two things need to be done to replenish our stockpiles.

First, Biden needs to invoke the Defense Production Act to require that industry set aside commercial contracts and concentrate not only on Ukraine’s needs but also to replenish our stockpile of weapons and ammunition.

Second, Biden should demand better planning from the Pentagon. There is no excuse for depleting our munitions to the point we are now, when we will run out of key munitions in a week should China attack Taiwan. There is no reason to believe that Biden’s defense team — beginning with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — is capable of that planning.

Biden won’t do either of those things. He is apparently content with the stalemate in Russia’s war on Ukraine and is still withholding assets such as the MiG-29 combat aircraft Poland was willing to give Ukraine a year ago. Breaking the stalemate in Ukraine’s favor is not among his, or the Pentagon’s, thoughts.

I have always supported supplying weapon systems and munitions to Ukraine to help it survive Putin’s brutal aggression with one caveat: that we have no vital national security interest in Ukraine. It is not a NATO member and probably never should be. That means we can help them fight that war but we should not engage our own forces.

Because of Biden’s neglect, we are now reaching the point at which we may have to reduce lethal aid to Ukraine in order to rebuild our munitions stockpiles in adequate quantity and condition to support our own war plans. Our national security cannot be sacrificed on the altar of Biden’s hubris.


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