This article has been corrected to note Hannah Dennis is the co-author of a piece on munitions.
Ukraine may be one of history’s great examples of military technological innovation.
It successfully integrated decades-old systems like the Javelin and the Stinger with modern digital targeting techniques; used commercial satellites to command and control decentralized forces; reverse engineered cheap drones to deliver grenades; and converted ship-based Harpoon cruise missiles into truck-launched systems. It recently procured the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, a precision-guided, 250-pound bomb employed by rocket beyond 90 miles.
The Ukrainians’ success highlights weaknesses in the U.S. arsenal. Production lines for weapons like the Javelin and the Stinger missile systems were all but shut down. The GLSDB received a hard pass from the U.S. military services. To launch the Harpoon from land, the Department of Defense had to draft a whole new emergency requirement.
As analysts Stacie Pettyjohn and Hannah Dennis concluded in a November 2022 report, the U.S. has been underinvesting in many munitions, including “anti-ship and area-effects weapons,” and is “not buying enough of these weapons” or “stockpiling enough precision-guided munitions (PGMs) for a protracted war.”
Why doesn’t the U.S. focus more on munitions? A large factor is armed force service identity — or how the Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Space Force associate weapons with their organizations’ identity.
The Navy’s identity, for example, centers on tradition and independent command at sea with a focus on aircraft carriers and submarines. In contrast, the Air Force, a relatively young service, is insecure about its independence and therefore advocates technology that emphasizes strategic air power, including bombers and (more recently) fighters.
The Army is often a late adopter of technology, advocating for personnel-heavy doctrine and armored platforms like tanks. In general, these service identities create a bias toward platforms (tanks, planes and ships) over munitions (missiles, bombs and rockets).
History is littered with examples of how service identity diverted attention away from munitions — both unintentionally and intentionally. For example, despite a proven combat record during World War I, an interwar U.S. Navy de-prioritized torpedoes and decimated its industrial capacity to produce the munitions. When World War II began, the Navy had only a limited number of outdated systems available.
The Air Force also famously sabotaged cruise missile testing during the 1970s, fearful it would jeopardize the B-1 bomber.
According to a damning congressional report at the time, it was “generally recognized that the Air Force has resisted pursuing [the Subsonic Cruise Armed Decoy] with an armed warhead because of its possible use as a standoff launch missile. This application could jeopardize the B-1 program because it would not be necessary to have bomber penetration if a standoff missile were available as a cheaper and more viable alternative.”
Only after Congress threatened to force the Air Force to use the Navy’s cruise missile did the service overcome its antipathy for the munitions, with one Air Force general rejoining they better get serious, or receive a “torpedo rammed up its bomb bay.”
Identities within operational communities (for example, surface warfare officers, infantry or fighter pilots) and warfighting commands also impact munitions procurement. The Air Force’s dominance during the Cold War led to the prioritization within the service of strategic bombers and nuclear missiles over conventional missiles and tactical bombs.
Further, when munitions are viewed as replacements for platforms key to powerful operational communities, they often meet strong resistance. Norman Polmar and John O’Connell, the authors of “Strike from the Sea: The Development and Deployment of Strategic Cruise Missiles Since 1934,” recount, for example, that when it came to the adoption of the Regulus cruise missile, “naval aviators were not enthused.”
Wars tend to defeat service identity and galvanize munitions development and production. World War II reinvigorated torpedo development and led to innovations in guidance. The Korean War saved radio-guided bomb programs, shelved after World War II. Vietnam wrestled power away from Strategic Air Command toward tactical innovation and catalyzed laser-guided bombs.
But wars also create stockpiles of outdated munitions. After the Cold War, the United States was left with a large nuclear arsenal and no long-range conventional ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, two decades of counterinsurgency campaigns led to smaller inventories of munitions — mostly high precision, small effect and high cost.
Ukraine’s remarkable innovation should be a wake-up call for the U.S., looking warily at China. Taiwanese munition stores would be depleted even faster than those of Ukraine, and resupplying from across the Pacific will be much more difficult.
This is an opportunity for the U.S. to break its cycle, push the armed services to think as much about munitions as it does platforms, and invest in tactics and campaigns that take into account the supply of munitions as well as forward basing of platforms.
Jacquelyn Schneider is a Hoover Fellow at Stanford University. Her most recent work on military technology is “Looking back to look forward: Autonomous systems, military revolutions, and the importance of cost” with Julia Macdonald in the Journal of Strategic Studies.