In the face of rising threats to the U.S. and the constraints on military budgets, the Defense Department’s munitions enterprise requires a systemic review and development of a strategic plan. This plan would lay out production and fielding objectives for modernized and affordable weapons.
Congress identified this need in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, calling for just such a plan. Recognizing the importance of munitions modernization, the department stood up the Joint Production Accelerator Cell within its acquisition office. It is tasked with “building enduring industrial production capacity, resiliency, and surge capability for key defense weapon systems and supplies.”
However, the administration’s expression of the need for “new thinking” on munitions modernization does not appear to be translating into industry innovation and revitalization but simply additional purchases of the same antiquated systems and thinking.
In November 2021, the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released a policy paper, “Affordable Mass: The Need for a Cost-Effective PGM Mix for Great Power Conflict.” The report states that after decades of deferred and canceled modernization programs, the Air Force’s lead over America’s threats is eroding, and its forces are undersized for the operational demands of the National Defense Strategy.
At the same time, the squeeze on defense spending threatens the Air Force’s annual budget. The Air Force must balance the range, size, speed, survivability and capacity of munitions in its inventory if it is to maintain a precision strike advantage over China and Russia.
In the Navy, as the chief of naval operations mentions in his 2022 “Navigation Plan,” “to build the dynamic kill chains required for [distributed maritime operations], we must modernize and integrate current capabilities for Long Range Fires, aligning our analysis, prototyping, experimentation, requirements documentation, and capability development.”
The Navy should acquire more long-range fires. It needs these weapons to meet and defeat threats that have rapidly proliferated in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters. By diversifying its shooter portfolio to augment the carrier air wing, the Navy can give commanders more missile shooters that can fire from ranges outside that of a peer adversary’s defenses.
Army planners seek increased range and lethality, and decreased weight in developing next-generation long-range fires to meet future conflict scenarios. While range and precision are critical, large-scale combat also requires the ability to mass and concentrate fires. Precision long-range rockets and missiles fill a critical need; however, their cost makes them prohibitive to mass fires. Even with the recent investments in munitions and delivery platforms, the Army has a need to provide a high volume of fires at short and intermediate ranges.
A combination of emerging technologies can provide the solution. Moving forward in munitions, a focus should be presented much like the recent revolution in drone or unmanned systems technology in terms of small, compact yet powerful guidance and control electronics, coupled with efficiently packaged and compact sensor suites. This provides the ability to develop weapons that are predominantly warhead and less airframe, which maximizes the effects-to-cost ratio.
An emphasis on “out of the box” functionality should also be addressed, where weapons show up ready to go with no assembly required. These weapons should also be compatible with as many bomb-delivering platforms in our inventory as possible, guaranteeing the ability to go fight with what we have.
As the military continues to increasingly value lightweight, tensile-strength, heat-resistant materials, industry may have solutions and options only previously explored in piecemeal, stovepiped fashion. Moving to more advanced weapons and weapons-delivery vehicles, hypersonics, and increased reliance on unmanned systems, the military services need to re-evaluate the entire munitions enterprise.
Congress and Pentagon leadership are calling for action on munitions modernization. However, if recent press reports are accurate about the purchase of replenishment stocks following the expenditure of munitions in the conflict in Ukraine, real reform and modernization are still wanting. Hopefully, new study efforts and constructive engagement with the nontraditional munitions industry can lead us to take the next steps forward. We cannot afford to continue to buy old stuff and expect to prevail in tomorrow’s battlefield.
Retired Gen. Joseph Martin served as the U.S. Army vice chief of staff. Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula is the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.