The United States is set to face a raft of consequences if urgent measures are not taken to expand its production capacity for military munitions.
For many years, the Defense Department and Congress together all but ignored the issue. Year after year, budgets were proposed and approved that saw crucial munitions purchased at the lowest possible rate companies could sustain, hollowing out the industrial base.
Now, with an extraordinary array of threats emerging, Washington can no longer disregard a munitions production shortfall that endangers U.S. military readiness and undercuts Washington’s ability to provide beleaguered democracies, such as Ukraine and Taiwan, with the combat capabilities they need.
The good news is that there are several steps Congress can take to begin to address the munitions crisis. Those include authorizing and funding major production increases of key munitions, supporting targeted measures to expand industrial capacity, and the provision of multiyear procurement authorities that incentivize private sector investment.
To begin to understand the challenge, consider the U.S. assistance provided to Ukraine. On Oct. 4, the Pentagon announced $625 million in additional security assistance for Ukraine, bringing the total to $17.5 billion since January 2021. Among other things, according the Pentagon, assistance provided to Ukraine by the U.S. has included roughly 8,500 Javelin anti-armor systems, 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 880,0000 155mm artillery rounds, 2,500 precision-guided 155mm artillery rounds and an unknown quantity of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rounds used by the 38 U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in or on their way to Ukraine.
While the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine represents a necessary step to secure core American interests, the laudable provision of these weapons to Kyiv has highlighted shortcomings when it comes to the Pentagon’s munitions arsenals and the capacity of the U.S. industrial base to produce them.
The Javelin anti-tank weapon that gained increased notoriety in the early days of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine demonstrates the wider problem. According to Pentagon budget documents, the average rate of Pentagon procurement of the Javelin during fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2022 was about 675 annually. At that rate, it would take more than 12 years to replace the 8,500 Javelin systems sent to Ukraine.
In April, when the United States had sent only 5,000 Javelin missiles to Ukraine, lawmakers expressed concerns that this quantity amounted to one-third of U.S. stockpiles.
The Defense Department and Congress are taking belated steps to address the Javelin shortfall, and industry is looking to double production capacity — but that could take a couple years. There are also production capacity concerns related to the Stinger missiles, 155mm artillery rounds and GMLRS rounds.
Some might respond by arguing the United States should halt the provision of weapons to Kyiv. But that would be a penny-wise, pound-foolish move that both neglects the core American interests at stake on the battlefield in Ukraine and invites more aggression from autocrats.
These munitions challenges are not only relegated to ground warfare munitions or the situation in Ukraine. China now boasts the largest naval force in the world, and deterring or defeating an attack by Beijing on Taiwan would require the U.S. military to maintain the capability and capacity to sink an extraordinary number of Chinese vessels. Yet, once again, the U.S. military lacks the requisite number of munitions.
The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is a consummate example. The LRASM has a 500-mile-plus range that can launch from U.S. Air Force (B-1 and soon B-52) and Navy (F-18 and soon P-8) aircraft, placing China’s naval fleet at risk. Unfortunately, the Pentagon only has about 200 of these missiles today; recent war games consistently indicate the United States needs about 800-1,200 to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Despite that fact, the average annual LRASM procurement rate across FY20-FY22 was only 38 missiles (including both the U.S. Navy and Air Force). For FY23, the Pentagon requested a total of 88 missiles. At that rate, it would take until around 2032 to accumulate around 1,000 missiles in the U.S. inventory. Such a lethargic procurement plan is perilously disconnected from warnings that Beijing could conduct an attack long before that.
To begin to address this dangerous shortfall, Washington should work with industry to get the LRASM production up to 200-250 a year as soon as possible. For FY23, production capacity could ideally be increased to at least 110-130 as an interim step.
Other high-end munitions with similar capacity shortfalls in war games include the Standard Missile-6, a multipurpose missile that can be used for countering cruise and ballistic missiles, sinking ships, land-attack operations, and potentially even hypersonic missile defense. The Navy is buying approximately 125 of these a year, but even double that rate would still not fulfill warfighter needs.
Across many of these munitions, the key problem has been the failure of Washington to procure the munitions in sufficient quantities in the form of signed contracts with industry. When the contracts and large quantity procurements weren’t forthcoming, industry predictably responded by permitting some industrial capacity to wither.
Thankfully, the solutions are simple if there is sufficient political will to pursue them. Congress should push to authorize and appropriate funding levels for key munitions that match the current maximum production rate. In the next breath, members would be wise to ask what more can be done to increase maximum production rates next year. Notably, the initial version of the Senate appropriations bill has $1 billion for industrial capacity expansion.
Congress should also establish multiyear purchasing agreements for vital munitions where possible; help defense manufacturers address weak points in their munition production workforces; and bolster smaller, secondary and tertiary subcontractors that may be slowing overall production rates.
The Senate just added more than a dozen authorizations for multiyear contracts during the chamber’s consideration of the annual defense authorization bill. In fact, the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act advances all of these priorities and hopefully will be supported by House leadership and included in the final conference report.
In addition to actions Washington can take, the United States can look to its allies for help. As the United States expands production capacity, it will be able to sell key munitions to capable allies, thus reducing the operational burden on U.S. forces and the financial burden on the American taxpayer. Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom should all be reviewing the LRASM and SM-6 for future procurement.
Washington should also explore co-production agreements with reliable allies and partners. That would build larger, combined production capacity over time and result in a more potent, combined, deterrent force.
The good news for Americans is that there is still time to act, but the window of opportunity may be closing.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is the senior director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation.