WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is slated to visit Alabama on Tuesday to tour a Lockheed Martin facility tasked with manufacturing the Javelin anti-tank missiles that the U.S. has steadily provided to Ukraine with almost legendary success.
While a presidential-level visit will draw the American public’s attention to the U.S. defense industry’s role in producing the weapons that have helped the Ukrainian military repel Russian advances, it will also highlight its struggles to replenish the stocks of munitions that the Biden administration has sent abroad.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers have urged Biden to begin tackling the immensely complex task of keeping pace with current demand for increased munitions development while untangling a host of thorny supply chain issues that have impeded the U.S. ability to replenish weapons sent to Ukraine.
“They need to up our production capacity,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told Defense News. “When it comes to munitions – missiles and drones – we need to figure out how to make more of them more quickly. And we’ve got to work with our industrial base both here in the U.S. and internationally to figure out how to do that.”
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted on the Senate floor last week the roughly 5,000 javelin missiles that the Biden administration has sent to Ukraine amount to one-third of the U.S. stockpiles. The U.S. has also sent more than 1,400 stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, which represents a quarter of its stockpiles.
“This is a wake-up call, and not just about our ability to support the current fight,” said McConnell. “Ukraine’s expenditure rate of critical munitions should cause us to question whether our own wartime requirements for weapons systems and munitions are sufficient.”
“This would be less of a problem if we had a robust defense industrial base to quickly refill our armories,” he added. “But defense manufacturers have admitted that the production lines for some critical components have dried up and it could be years before they could replace weapons we’ve sent to Ukraine.”
Aside from highlighting the role that Javelin missiles have played in the Ukraine war, the White House has remained tight-lipped about the specifics of what Biden plans to address during his visit to Troy, Alabama.
Lockheed Martin’s facility there serves as a final assembly line for missiles, where approximately 600 employees produce systems such as Javelins, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.
The weapons manufacturer began expanding its facility in Troy in 2019, but just as its competitor Raytheon will not be able to begin replenishing U.S. stockpiles of Stinger missiles until 2023, Lockheed Martin could face similar challenges as it seeks to backfill the Javelins transferred to Ukraine.
“We have the ability to meet current production demands and are investing to increase capacity and production to meet our customers’ future needs,” a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told Defense News.
With the Ukraine war threatening to drag on for months or years, an increased Javelin demand from other countries and the need for the U.S. and its allies alike to replenish stockpiles they’ve already sent to Ukraine, Lockheed Martin will indeed face a surge of future needs.
“It’s been a very effective system, and they’re asking for more, obviously,” Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet, told the Atlantic Council last week. “What our goal is going to be down in Troy, Alabama – and in our case when we make similar defensive products – is to expand the production capacity of those sites.”
He noted that for “something this urgent, we’re going to invest ahead of need.”
Taiclet has admitted that pandemic-related supply chain problems have also affected Lockheed Martin when it comes to producing major weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet, but he told investors on a quarterly earnings call last month that “we expect these timing impacts to be recovered over the course of 2022.”
Still, the U.S. government cannot even buy the additional Javelins it needs from Lockheed Martin to backfill U.S. stocks and continue supplying security partners until Congress acts on the massive $33 billion Ukraine aid supplemental that Biden requested last week.
The president’s request includes more than $20 billion in additional Ukrainian security assistance, a thus far unprecedented amount that is expected to include funding to backfill U.S. munition stockpiles.
Lawmakers have received the Ukraine supplemental request with broad bipartisan support, but Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, suggested in a statement last week that the $33 billion price tag may be too low and vowed to pay special attention to the portion of the request for backfilling U.S. munitions.
“I will also be looking closely at the backfill portion of the supplemental request, where we are still moving much too slowly,” said Inhofe. “I am glad that the Department of Defense is taking real steps to address the shortfalls in our stocks of various critical munitions and those of our allies and partners. With the flexible munitions funds, Department of Defense leadership is thinking creatively, and we will work to ensure that creativity is met in kind.”
Pentagon leaders, after delivering more than 5,000 Javelins to Ukraine from the military’s own stocks, are publicly expressing confidence in the military’s readiness and that it has other anti-armor capabilities. Still, they share concerns with the defense industry about supply chain challenges surrounding the Javelin, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Switchblade drones.
All three, which were sent from U.S. stockpiles to Ukraine, were topics of a meeting last month between Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and executives from eight major defense firms to discuss industry proposals to accelerate production of existing systems. Those conversations come amid fears the war, which is intensifying in eastern Ukraine, will grind on.
“The secretary wants to keep that dialogue going with the defense industry as well, on those and maybe even other systems,” Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week. “Because we certainly think that now that the focus is on the Donbas, this could become a more prolonged conflict. And we want to make sure that our own defense industrial base can continue to support our needs, as well as ... support Ukraine’s needs.”
Biden has also come under pressure from lawmakers, including McConnell and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to ameliorate supply chain issues by invoking the Defense Production Act.
His supplemental request also included funding to help utilize that Korean War-era law, which allows the federal government to direct private companies to prioritize supplying customers critical to U.S. national security – such as the defense industrial base.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.