Long Wars and Industrial Mobilization: It Won’t Be World War II Again


After a generation of absence, interest in long wars against peer adversaries has returned and with it, an interest in mobilization. Many observers — from Eliot Cohen to senior members of the Joint Staff to David Barno and Nora Bensahel — have warned about it. Long wars require industrial mobilization, and when strategists and planners think of these things, they think of World War II and all that came with it: conversion of civilian industry to military use, mass production, a long buildup of forces, and, finally, well-equipped, massive armies that overwhelm opponents.

But a long war today would be totally different. In fact, after about nine months of intense peer conflict, attrition would grind the U.S. armed forces down to something resembling the military of a regional power.  The Army, for example, would be armed primarily with infantry weapons with heavy firepower coming from gun trucks and a trickle of modern equipment acquired from struggling domestic production and whatever logisticians could scrounge up on the world market. This state of affairs arises because the U.S. government has not thought seriously about industrial mobilization. It is far easier to bask in warm memories of World War II than to face the harsh choices that mobilization preparation entails.

Here’s the basic problem: Major wars against peer competitors burn up weapons and munitions at a ferocious rate far beyond what the highly consolidated and fragile U.S. defense industry can produce. America’s defense industrial base is designed for peacetime efficiency, not mass wartime production, because maintaining unused capacity for mobilization is expensive. Congress and the Pentagon believe weapons are expensive enough without paying for something that may never be needed.

Let’s look at tanks as an example, but the same dynamic applies to aircraft, ships, and munitions (and people, for that matter, but that’s another article in itself). The U.S. Army has 15 armored brigade combat teams in the regular force and reserve component, with a total of about 1300 tanks in them (90 per brigade). Behind these “operational” tanks are about another thousand in training units, maintenance, and R&D . And there are hundreds more in the “boneyard” in various stages of decay.

Forecasting attrition in peer conflicts is hard because such conflicts are — fortunately — rare, but we can get glimpses. For example, in 1973 the Israelis lost 400 out of 1700 tanks, a rate of about 1.1 percent per day over the 20 days of increasingly lopsided combat. The Arab armies lost far more. The great 1943 tank battle of Kursk caused very high tank losses — the Germans lost 14 percent per day over two weeks of combat, or 110 percent of their initial force — but that was a short engagement of unusual intensity. In World War II, the average U.S. infantry battalion on the front line lost 2.6 percent of its personnel per day, even without major fighting. It is therefore reasonable to assume that an intense peer conflict would destroy about 1 percent of the tank force every day. That includes losses from all sources — combat, abandonment during retreat, sunk en route to theater, and accidents.

With all 15 armored brigades engaged, the armored force would lose 13 tanks per day on average or 390 per month. By pulling in replacements from the tanks in maintenance and the training base, the armored brigade combat teams could stay at full strength for about two months. After that, the force would decline steadily: to 74 percent in month four (960 tanks), 55 percent in month five (715 tanks), 41 percent in month six (533 tanks), and so on. By month 10, the force would be down to 158 tanks — two armored brigades’ worth.

Won’t industrial mobilization provide replacements? Yes, but not enough. The United States has only built (actually, upgraded from older versions) 20 to 60 tanks a year in recent years, with perhaps an equal number from foreign sales. Eventually, according to the Army’s budget documents, production could surge to 28 per month. In other words, when fully mobilized, tank production would replace about two days of losses every month. Including these replacements in the calculation above adds a month to the timeline. With more time and money, industry (General Dynamics in this case) could expand production further, but it has a long way to go.

So what to do? First, the United States would need to haul equipment out of the “boneyard,” get it running, and send it to the front. For tanks, that means using all the old M-1A1s, the un-digitized version without the improved fire control, upgraded armor, and integrated computers of the current M-1A2SEP version. Eventually the original M-1s from the early 1980s with the smaller 105mm cannon, instead of the current 120mm cannon, would be needed. There would not be time or capacity to upgrade to the most current version. Government and contractor facilities will be overwhelmed repairing battle damage and building new tanks. Using such old equipment runs contrary to 50 years of practice where the U.S. military has fought with only the most modern equipment. The flip side, however, is that adversaries would be facing the same attrition dynamics and going through their own quantity versus quality crisis. In other words, if the conflict were in Europe, U.S. tanks would not be facing modern Russian tanks like T-90s but older tanks like T-80s or T-72s. So it would be an even fight.

Simultaneously, logisticians will need to go to the civilian economy and buy what can be adapted there. Adapted does not mean shifting civilian production to military-specification production, because that would take too long. In World War II, industrial mobilization took years, beginning with French and British war orders in 1938 but not producing the masses of equipment needed to go head-to-head with Germany and Japan until 1944. The words of Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, recalling the mobilization challenge of World War I, apply here:

Here is the history of munitions production: first year, very little; second year, not much, but something; third year, almost all you want; fourth year, more than you need.

“Adaptation” in such a situation means taking what the civilian economy produces, painting it green, and sending it forward. Some “civilian-like” equipment might be produced relatively quickly. Production of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected – essentially armored gun trucks), for example, surged within a year during the Iraq war. Adaptation also applies to the doctrine needed to fight such a force.  So after six or eight months of combat, the Army’s main combat vehicle might be MRAP gun trucks, but that’s better than nothing.

Finally, logisticians will need to buy whatever they can from the world market, something the U.S. military has not done in a major way since World War I when the French equipped America’s poorly prepared expeditionary force. However, there are many precedents in other countries. When Great Britain retook the Falkland Islands in 1983, the United States provided munitions. When Iraq and Iran fought an eight-year death struggle from 1980 to 1988, both searched the world market aggressively to find equipment wherever they could. So when U.S. industry is unable to produce equipment in the numbers needed, the United States will need to do the same. Because the NATO allies may be engaged themselves, or building up their own armed forces, the United States would need to go to other countries. Brazil would be a good example, since it has a mature arms industry. Radical measures, like offering to buy the Egyptian and Moroccan tank forces, would be warranted. That sounds silly, but they have a lot of American tanks that could be incorporated quickly into the U.S. Army.

Of course, optimistic assumptions can make the problem go away. For example, multi-billion dollar peacetime investments in mobilization capacity would speed wartime production. However, the military services have never been willing to do that, being faced with many near-term budget demands and with mobilization capacity looking like inefficiency in an already inefficient acquisition system.

A long period of strategic warning, as happened in World War II, would also facilitate mobilization, but that is unlikely to happen in a future war. It’s hard to imagine events that would be so shocking to Americans that they would start a draft and totally mobilize industry, but that would not at the same time bring the United States into war.

So what’s the solution? The first step is to recognize the problem. That’s where we are stuck today, despite this being a known problem, or what Frank Hoffman calls a “pink flamingo.” Thinking about what a long war might look like is extremely uncomfortable. Military leaders would likely regard equipping U.S. forces with older, foreign, or less capable equipment as wrong, even immoral. Unfortunately, there may not be any choice in the event. This cultural shift will be the greatest challenge in a future mobilization. The next step is to build plans that fit a wide spectrum of mobilization circumstances, from stressing to less stressing, because the probability and nature of long wars is highly uncertain. Finally, the Department of Defense will need to invest small amounts of money in mobilization capacity — large investments are just not realistic. For example, industry could ease production bottlenecks with some up-front investment. The president’s recently ordered assessment of the defense industrial base should help identify opportunities. The “boneyard” could ensure “mothballed” equipment does not deteriorate too badly so it could be reactivated in an emergency. In the end, smart investments and realistic planning could turn a strategic vulnerability into a strategic advantage.


Mark Cancian (Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice). He has written extensively on national security topics and is currently leading a research project on avoiding surprise in a future peer conflict.

Image: National Archives