WASHINGTON — A major look at the defense-industrial base, ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump and released last month, found roughly 300 gaps and vulnerabilities across America’s network of defense suppliers, the vast majority of which are only identified in a classified annex to the public report.
But many of those challenges can be addressed in the next year, according to Eric Chewning, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy.
Speaking Friday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Chewning predicted “about a third” of those issues would be remediated in the coming year, with another third addressed over the next few years after that.
As to the remaining 100 or so issues, those “are things that long term we’re going to have to manage, recognizing that new stuff is going to come in and things are going to pop out as we dynamically manage the industrial base,” Chewning said.
“There are levels of solving. For some of them I don’t know we’re ever going to fully solve. I think there are ones we’re just going to have to keep our hand on,” he added.
The 300 weak spots are a mix of sole-source suppliers who could disappear from the market; suppliers that have already decided to leave the defense market; and suppliers that are foreign-owned and could potentially pull the plug in a critical situation.
Speaking ahead of Chewning, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade policy adviser, noted that risks for sole-source suppliers in the lower tiers of the supply chain raise the likelihood that “if you have to surge production of that weapon system, you’re not going to be able to do that. Or if that widget goes out of business, you have to stop producing that F-35 or at least have delays. These are what we call single points of failure.”
Part of the reason these first 100 or so issues can be addressed in the next year is due to planning from the Defense Department, which requested legislative proposals in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act specifically tailored to help deal with industrial problems. Among those was reupping the Defense Production Act Title III authorities, which create a fund for supporting endangered industrial suppliers with critical parts.
An example of how the Defense Department can quickly act to secure industrial base vulnerabilities is laid out in the decision — announced concurrent with the report’s release — to invest $70 million for a plant that produces gun components, in order to launch modernization and risk mitigation programs. A smaller investment of about $1 million went to the facility that produces the Abrams tank, to procure better tooling.
“What we did here is not just present a report to the president that would gather dust on the shelf, but the mission was to provide a report with a set of actions that, again, we can implement in ‘Trump Time,’ ” Navarro said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.