Defense Business Brief: Reagan Forum recap; Industrial strategy, imminent; Counter-drone ‘crisis,’ and more.
SIMI VALLEY, California—Some GOP leaders are pushing to cut aid to Ukraine, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowd at the 10th annual Reagan National Defense Forum. Amid the sprawling Simi Hills northwest of Los Angeles, Republicans and Democrats alike touted the flow of arms as key to national security.
Some, such as Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, also praised the flow of government dollars to U.S. communities. The former George W. Bush speechwriter, who wrote about it last week, repeated his argument on a Saturday morning panel here.
The money “is staying here, it's creating jobs for Americans, it's creating hot production lines for weapons that we'll need for other conflicts, it's strengthening our national security,” Thiessen said.
A recent survey conducted by the Reagan Institute, the event’s organizer, found that overall American support for the U.S. sending aid to Ukraine is 59 percent, with the war being supported by 75 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans.
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Just a few hours later, Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante previewed what’s being billed as the first National Defense Industrial Strategy.
“It will guide the department's engagement, policy development, and investments in the industrial base over the next three to five years,” LaPlante said during a Saturday afternoon session that discussed increasing weapons production to meet future demands.
“A strategy is what allows all of us to make choices and choices of what we're going to do and invest in and what we're not going to do,” he said. “The strategy also will outline what is the risk of the status quo, if we don't do anything.”
Officials had hoped the strategy would be finalized by last week in advance of the Reagan Forum, but “it's going to be signed out very shortly in the coming weeks,” LaPlante said.
The strategy’s “four lines of effort” include actions to create “resilient supply chains [that] must be able to produce the products, services and technologies needed at speed, scale and costs,” he said.
Another part focuses on workforce readiness and the need for “a skilled and sufficiently staffed workforce that is ready to go and will stay in the industry for years.”
Yet another part calls for “flexible acquisition,” that allows contracting officers to “use all elements, all the tools in the acquisition toolkit.”
Finally the strategy calls for “effective market mechanisms,” of which LaPlante said: “Think of it as almost economic deterrence, that supportive, resilient industrial ecosystem among not just the US, but our allies and partners.”
In recent years, the Pentagon has worked to expand munition production lines to replace missiles and artillery given to Ukraine’s military. Industry executives have pushed for a clear, long-term demand signal before they make substantial investments in factory expansion and improvements, known as capital expenditures, or CAPEX.
“We in the government have to show them that we're committed and we're gonna be doing it in a sustained manner — even with funding,” LaPlante said. “We have to have the conversations together about what you're putting in for CAPEX and what the government will then put in.”
The Pentagon must also show industry that “we're serious about production.” The deputy undersecretary urged companies to “lean forward” and to always think about ways to scale production, even in the early stages.
Many Reagan speakers used their time in the spotlight to urge Congress to do its duty: pass a yearlong budget and the National Defense Authorization Act—and to go beyond, by passing a $105 billion supplemental spending measure to fund Ukraine, Israel, and the U.S. submarine industrial base, among other items.
What’s at risk? For one thing, the progress made to increase production of 155-millimeter artillery shells. In just a year, the United States has gone from making 14,000 rounds per month to 80,000, and, LaPlante said, “We now have a credible, realistic plan to get to 100,000 rounds per month in 2025.” But, he added, “Let's be clear, if we don't get this supplemental that's sitting over there” on Capitol Hill, “we won't get there.”
There’s a counter-drone “crisis” in Ukraine and Israel. “It is an urgent issue and we need…counter-UAS capabilities, at scale,” LaPlante said. “We need lots of money [and] we need production lines to go fast.” He compared the demand for counter-drone tech to the heavy demand Ukraine has had for artillery shells. (Read up on U.S., allied, and Ukrainian counter-drone efforts, here, here, and here.)
On the eve of the forum, Anduril Industries unveiled a new craft that officials say can down drones and missiles or collect intelligence. The jet-power Road Runner can also fly home and land if it’s not used for striking a target.
Missing at Reagan: Any Biden administration appointee for the AUKUS-focused panel. The trilateral pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom has broad bipartisan support, and was brought up many times throughout the weekend, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s keynote address.
Not-so-smooth flight back to DC. More than a handful of RDNF attendees had their travel back to Washington’s Reagan National Airport disrupted by fog over the Potomac River and a runway-light problem. One American Airlines flight circled west of Washington for some time before diverting to Richmond to refuel. After sitting in Richmond for more than two and a half hours—the last hour or so without functioning toilets because the septic tanks were full—the plane made the 20-minute hop to DCA. Among those aboard: A former defense secretary, a current senior Army official, a former congressman, numerous industry executives, and your correspondent.
Pentagon officials met with Boeing executives during RNDF one day after Reuters reported the company had been eliminated from an Air Force competition to replace the Cold War-era 747s that would become airborne command centers during a nuclear war. “I don't know about whether they're in the competition or not, but what we talked about is the broader issue of recapitalizing [the] E-4,” LaPlante said. “And...they're going to still be part of that.”
L3Harris Technologies appointed Kenneth Bedingfield, former CEO of Epirus, as senior vice president and CFO effective Dec. 11. He replaces Michelle Turner, whose “departure was not prompted by any disagreement with the company’s financial reporting or accounting practices, procedures or decisions,” the company said.