Memo Details Effort to Boost Production of Weapons Sent to Ukraine
The Pentagon's top buyer offers a “targeted list” of weapons to help solve a problem decades in the making.
A Pentagon memo details steps to boost production of specialized air defenses, long-range missiles, and rockets whose stocks have dwindled as they are used in Ukraine—amid other behind-the-scenes steps being taken by defense officials, policymakers, and companies to ensure the U.S. military is adequately armed if the country gets directly involved in a conflict.
Pentagon officials have created a “targeted list for multi-year procurement [that] includes munitions that support Ukraine, our own needs, and other conflict scenarios,” Bill LaPlante, defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, wrote in a January memo to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
LaPlante’s office is conducting “munitions industrial base deep dives focused on accelerating integrated air defense systems capabilities and expanding the long-range fires industrial base,” it said,
Ammunition-maker General Dynamics has been working with the Army to develop a plan “to increase our ammunition and projectile output,” CEO Phebe Novakovic said on the company’s quarterly earnings call last month.
The U.S. has sent thousands of weapons to Ukraine, including HIMARS launchers and the GMLRS rockets they fire; Javelin anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, and the NASAMS system. Ukrainian forces have run quickly through them in their desperate battle to fight off the Russian invasion. The dwindling U.S. stocks reflect decades of decisions within the Pentagon and Congress to cut munition buys in favor of higher-priced aircraft, ships, and armored vehicles.
“I saw from the inside, the shortage of munitions we have right now is because we short munitions in the budget,” said Eric Fanning, a former Army secretary who is now CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “It's a bill-payer in the end—always has been.”
Fanning is among the defense-industry advocates scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee about the state of the defense industrial base. It’s the second hearing being held by the panel since Republicans took control of the House earlier this year.
“We're not in the position we're in because Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago,” Fanning said. “We're in the position we're in for decisions that were made for years before that invasion.”
Pentagon officials, including LaPlante himself, have pushed for more authority from Congress to sign multi-year munitions deals—in large part to persuade companies to invest in factories, the supply chain, and their workforces. They say these are necessary because unlike consumer products, weapons makers generally sell to just a single buyer: the U.S. government.
“The defense industrial base is not a hardware store, because it only has one customer,” Fanning said. If I want a hammer, I walk around the corner, literally to Ace Hardware and there will be a hammer there, because there's countless other people going up Ace Hardware and buying hammers. But if the Pentagon doesn’t buy a hammer for 20 years, the capability to build a hammer will go away.”
So far, officials have “channeled nearly $1 billion toward industrial base investments…in order to expand and accelerate production of key systems and munitions,” LaPlante’s January memo states.
But having factories that are able to quickly ramp up weapons production is something that can change overnight.
“We don't invest in having the industrial capacity that we might need,” Fanning said. “That's not necessarily a criticism, because that's a very expensive thing to do. To say, ‘I want four of those a month, but I want to be able to go to 12 overnight in case I need it,’ that's a different plant, and a different workforce, and a different supply chain, and a different cost.”
While new types of technology, such as advanced manufacturing and 3D printing, have potential to help speed up weapon making, there are a number of additional policy issues that officials must figure out.
“How do we prevent this from happening again? Right now, we budget for peace [and] we have processes for peace,” Fanning said. “It's too expensive to budget for war every single year whether [there is a war] or not. You have to be able to have surge [capacity], but you can't bake it into every contract. It’s just way too expensive. We need to figure out what [we] need to ramp up first and fastest.”
Complicating matters is high inflation—which has disproportionately affected small businesses—and supply chains that despite improving in recent months still have weak points. Executives have said throwing money at the issue can only go so far as it takes months, if not longer, to train new workers and get raw materials.
“When you look at the inflation, it's certainly everything: materials, transportation, parts, but it comes back to [the] workforce too, and inflation of wages.” Fanning said.