Empty Magazines Imperil Readiness in Our New Missile Age

Changing to a war-footing mindset—if only to deter aggression—requires a change in military procurement culture

It’s time for Western military establishments to shift their attention to stockpiling missiles. Image Credit: Anton Petrus/Getty Images

An important discussion arising out of Westernand particularly U.S.material support for Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion is whether the weapons transferred for Ukraine’s defense diminish the suppliers’ own military readiness. Alongside concerns about conflict escalation and direct U.S. involvement, those on the right opposed to providing military support for Ukraine often charge that the policy is depleting U.S. stocks of key armaments America needs to deter China, Iran and other threats. Supporters left, right and center counter that the material aid is either surplus or easily replaced, and in any event worth it for the damage being done to Vladimir Putin’s dangerous regime.

Whatever the merits of either point, the debate draws attention to a stark reality of modern warfare: Existing weapons stockpiles probably won’t be enough to sustain more than a few days of high-intensity combat. In fact, one British general recently charged that U.K. arsenals wouldn’t be able to supply a war against a foe such as Russia for more than a single day. A series of high-profile wargames has shown that a U.S. attempt to relieve Taiwan under assault by the People’s Republic of China typically fails because U.S. forces run out of critical long-range missiles within five days.

If the key to real estate is location, location, location, the corollary for military operations is munitions, munitions, munitions. Modern warfare is demonstrably in an age of missiles and precision-guided weapons. These systems are complex, expensive and shockingly time-consuming to design, build and maintain. As Western military establishments awaken from their post-9/11 emphasis on low-intensity conflicts, counter-terrorism and showing the flag to face the threat of extended war with peer powers, they must radically shift their attention to stockpiling missiles, if only to deter potential enemies from taking that fateful step. However, post-Cold War defense acquisition policies have created a culture of long, leisurely and expensive development programs culminating in relatively austere production runs—or even cancellation—of actual weapons. Changing this military culture is a ponderous effort, like turning around an aircraft carrier.

Enter the New Missile Age

The 1982 Falklands War heralded this new missile age and the hazards of ill preparedness. While the origins of the crisis were decades—even centuries—old, the Argentine junta rolled the dice on invading the islands opportunistically. Argentina’s armed forces had only about a half-dozen air-launched Exocet anti-ship missiles in its inventory. If Argentina had planned ahead and stockpiled more missiles for their jets, the British would have had a real problem because their cobbled-together task force had inadequate air defenses. The contemporary Royal Navy was intended more as an auxiliary for NATO and not for independent operations against overseas enemies.

In all likelihood, today’s U.S.-led Western alliance would have let bureaucratic inertia continue to direct the pace of military planning and acquisition until jolted by some crisis. Systematic changes remained largely on paper until a crisis indeed came: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

“Just because we have a diagnosis doesn’t mean that we are on the path to recovery,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Russia-Ukraine War was a wakeup call—it still is a wakeup call. We are still waking up. We are in an ongoing process of changing our decades-long approach to defense, including our acquisition posture.”

William LaPlante, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, recently said that the U.S. needs to increase the number of production lines for, among other weapons, the guided rounds for the HIMARS artillery rocket system, which has been deployed with decisive results in Ukraine, and 155mm shells for howitzers that are also expended at fantastic rates.

“The United States and others have been scrounging in the couch cushions around the world in order to keep the Ukrainian guns in action,” Karako said, adding that that the U.S. has even tapped into its prepositioned stores of artillery shells in Israel to keep Ukraine supplied. “Meanwhile, on the production side, we are nowhere near the replacement rate for what is being expended.”

One small silver lining of the war in Ukraine is that it has reintroduced Western policymakers to truths about industrialized warfare that had up to recently been convenient to neglect, if not forget. “While some folks see the Ukraine conflict as a distraction, I’m not sure decisionmakers would be moving from intellectual diagnosis of the problem to prognosis and prescription,” Karako said. “The war has helped coalesce serious minds in this world to say, ‘We do need to change our acquisition culture and do things differently to mass produce.’ It’s not going to be easy to implement that need, however, and I’m not completely convinced that we are going to be able to do enough.”

For example, Karako points out that early in the conflict, the U.S. was able to supply Ukraine with a large cache of Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles—famously smuggled by the CIA to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union—because it had them sitting in warehouses. The U.S. Army decided about 10 years ago that it no longer needed short-range air-defense systems because its main concern was terrorist and militia-type forces with no offensive air capability to speak of. Producer Raytheon stopped making Stingers. The Ukraine experience has changed that thinking, with significant threats evident from low-altitude airstrikes and drone attacks. As a result, the Pentagon has placed new orders for Stingers, but Raytheon is having difficulty getting production up and running.

“You can’t just flip a switch,” Karako says. “When the contracts stop, the contractors in many cases move on. Their suppliers may no longer exist. The parts and software may be obsolete. People have gotten different jobs.”

He adds that new deliveries of the old-model Stinger might not be expected before 2028 and that a modernized or follow-on model may not be available until the 2030s: “It’s astonishing that it should take over a decade to produce a slightly better version of this missile that we were using in the 1980s.” In a December article in Strategika, a publication of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Karako wrote that recent conflicts in the new missile age, not only in Ukraine but in Nagorno-Karabakh and Iran-backed strikes on Saudi oil facilities and U.S. installations in Iraq, highlight “an age of vulnerability to air and missile attack, a need for active defenses and the demand signal for the thousands of munitions that would be expended in any major-power conflict.”

Ultimately, Karako said, the ideal is to amass stockpiles of weapons to deter adversaries from initiating war, either conventional or nuclear. “The absence of some kind of conventional deterrence capability could itself invite aggression,” he said. “Being able to meet an adversary’s threat at non-nuclear levels makes it harder for them to escalate. You raise the threshold and the costs of their aggression.”

Changing Military Acquisitions Culture

As the United States has gotten more technologically sophisticated in terms of its munitions, it takes longer to build them and they are more expensive per round, which limits the number that producers can manufacture economically. In part, this is because of our overall peacetime acquisition culture that focuses more on development programs than production.

“We build the minimum of what we think we might need,” Karako said. “By building the minimum of a thing it tends to cost more per item and take longer.” A recent report by Seth Jones, vice president and director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ International Security Program shows that if we were to find ourselves on a war footing, we would not be ready. While the report makes it clear that the U.S. understands its munitions issue and steps are being taken to address the problem, tremendous challenges remain.

For example, the 2023 Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Joe Biden in December, enables the Pentagon to establish multiyear contracts with contractors for certain weapon systems seen as important for Ukraine and for defending Taiwan. This sort of predictability is needed for companies to invest in the resources and infrastructure necessary to increase production.

However, the authorized acquisitions activities have a strong “reactive” focus on replenishing munitions stocks and authorizing sales to friends and allies in the news. There is no real sense that the U.S. is prepared to revise its military acquisitions culture to vastly and rapidly expand guided munitions stockpiles, perhaps even at the expense of some cherished development programs.

People recognize that at some level the acquisition system is broken, particularly in terms of development times. It’s not that these tasks are too complicated, or that U.S. industry can’t deliver. The people and their capability to innovate exist. The United States has produced some military marvels—and some white elephants—but not in any great numbers. Numbers matter in modern warfare, as does timeliness.

As the CSIS report states:

A strong U.S. industrial base—with sufficient munitions stockpiles and weapons systems—is critical for deterring Chinese action. Yet the United States is not prepared for war, which undermines deterrence. With Xi Jinping in his third term, most likely confident and emboldened, it is unclear what the timelines are for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan—if it happens. For planning purposes, the United States needs to be ready now. As the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted, it is difficult to predict timelines months or years ahead of time. Given the lead time for industrial production, it would likely be too late for the defense industry to ramp up production if a war were to occur without major changes.

Pass the Ammunition, Quickly

One of America’s historical fictions is that the nation was blissfully at peace before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor shocked it into World War II. However, most of the weapons used to fight the war were not just on the drawing board but were taking shape in factories and slipways, including war winners like the P-51 Mustang fighter and Essex-class aircraft carriers. In fact, acknowledgement of growing U.S. military power is one reason Japan chose its moment to strike: It was now or never.

Even victory did not provide much respite from defense demands, as the Cold War called for near wartime-levels of new weapons development and production. However, the desire for a “peace dividend” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact resulted in the United States radically scaling back its acquisition numbers. NATO allies were even more enthusiastic about cutting forces.

In an effort to trim costs and make the most out of a shrinking pie, defense contractors were urged to adopt “best practices” from consumer industries, such as just-in-time manufacturing and lean supply chains. As a result, companies eliminated redundancies—production lines and personnel. Many of the most important weapon systems in U.S. service have single points of failure for key components and concentrated teams for assembly. This not only creates bottlenecks for expanding production but also invites enemy attack.

According to Karako, the United States must put munitions production at the forefront of its strategic thinking. If great power war is all but inevitable in the near future, then a year’s warning may already be too little, let alone a bolt from the blue. Research and development should certainly continue; however, the performance of U.S.-sourced weapons in Ukraine shows that America retains a significant qualitative edge over or at least parity with its potential adversaries.

Part of the challenge of rectifying the “empty bins” problem is convincing the services and the allies to “buy in” on key systems and focus on stockpiles rather than new development. The West needs to field systems in large numbers that are not just interoperable but interchangeable. In the urgency of the situation, Karako said, bespoke solutions are a luxury we may not be able to afford.

“We have culture, we have habits, and it is going to be very difficult to break those habits,” he concluded. “Everybody wants to be able to custom design their own little thing. There is inertia that has yet to be overcome. We are not on a wartime footing yet. We are thinking about getting on the road to recovery, but we’re not there yet.”

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