If we had to go to war tomorrow, could our defense manufacturing sector keep up? And are we willing to gamble our national future on the answer? The White House has wisely decided that these are questions better not left to chance. The Trump administration’s recent executive order directing a review of the defense industrial base is predicated on the insight that the health of the defense industrial base is as much a component of our national defense as any aircraft carrier or main battle tank. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed this sentiment when he warned the Senate about our “increasingly brittle industrial base.” The administration’s ongoing review provides the best opportunity in decades to think holistically about the industrial base — from workforce education, to plant and shipyard capacity, to regulations, export controls, and beyond — to ensure continued American technological superiority and military dominance.
The most challenging task facing the administration’s review seems like the simplest: attaining a comprehensive understanding of what it is we’re talking about when we discuss the defense industrial base. After all, while first and second tier suppliers are well-known, the picture gets murkier further down the supply chain. For example, while Pratt and Whitney famously manufactures the F135 engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it buys parts for those engines from at least four Italian companies. Examining the supply chains of those four firms is a trying exercise. Multiply this issue across the entirety of the Defense Department’s portfolio, and it becomes clear that policymakers don’t — and as it stands currently, simply can’t — fully understand the complex network of firms and suppliers that contribute to our national defense.
To make things even more complex, the Pentagon cannot limit its view of the industrial base to current primes and suppliers. Growing evidence suggests that in the event of a major contingency, the current industrial base would be too small to support full mobilization. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Mark Cancian recently painted a bleak picture of how existing tank production facilities, even at full mobilization, would only be able to replace about two days of losses every month (under attrition rates from past conflicts). After several months of hard combat, the Army would have little ability to replace heavy equipment.
We can see similar looming problems when it comes to shipbuilding. While the Navy’s dry docks are more than 80 years old on average, the United States has little ability to domestically produce new dry docks of sufficient size to accommodate large Navy ships. In fact, an increasing number of the dry docks utilized by our defense industrial base are manufactured in China. It’s little surprise that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the fastest the Navy could grow its fleet from 275 ships today to its required size of 355 is a staggering 18 years.
The warning signs are increasingly clear. In the event of a large-scale conflict, the Department of Defense would be forced to expand beyond its normal stable of contractors. The Pentagon would need to look towards what could be considered America’s residual industrial base: the mix of both abandoned infrastructure that could be revitalized and commercial manufacturing facilities that could be repurposed for national defense.
To again use shipbuilding as an example, large and medium-sized shipyards used to dot the American heartland, from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Many of these shipyards have closed down and their land transitioned to other uses, but residual dry docks remain scattered around the country — but no centralized list or understanding exists. Every dry dock of sufficient size is a potential destination to repair ships and return them to the front line in the event of full mobilization. The same goes for non-shipbuilding industrial facilities that could be converted for defense purposes.
Collecting this information in the middle of a large-scale conflict would be extremely difficult if not impossible. Thus, our lack of understanding needlessly puts American lives at risk and jeopardizes the effectiveness of our conventional deterrent.
So why not start now? To fix this problem, the Pentagon should pursue total defense manufacturing visibility. This would be similar to the Pentagon’s total asset visibility after inefficiencies in its Gulf War logistics footprint needlessly cost taxpayers an extra $2 billion. This effort would shed light on the entirety of the defense industrial ecosystem from the supply chain to latent and residual capabilities. It will be difficult and complex, but attaining complete (or at least somewhat comprehensive) visibility into the defense manufacturing base is paramount to the success of the new executive order. The Pentagon will not be able to accomplish many of the key missions of the review, such as pinpointing potential single point sources of failure, if it does not understand the totality of its current and potential assets.
To achieve the visibility it needs, the Pentagon should seek the assistance of industry in coming up with an exhaustive list of every firm that contributes to the defense industrial base. From the primes to the smallest widget suppliers, every business that features in the defense supply chain should be included. Moving beyond the current supply chain, every dry dock large enough to accommodate Navy ships should be catalogued, and the commercial facilities that might be most easily converted to defense purposes should be noted. Defense leaders should make clear that the goal of this exercise is not to impose new, heavy-handed protocols on the defense supply chain, but rather to cooperatively build a healthier and more robust defense industrial base.
The good news is that the Department of Defense would not have to start from scratch. In recent years, the Pentagon developed a “Sector-by-Sector, Tier-by-Tier” assessment of the defense industrial base. The idea behind this was to gain a better understanding of the supply chain so the Pentagon could evaluate the potential impact of acquisition decisions on the industrial base. As part of this process, the Department of Defense gathered a large amount of survey data from participating firms that touched on customers, suppliers, and competitors. While the department focused first on a “manageable few” items to conduct fragility and criticality assessments, the information the Pentagon collected from this experience could serve as an important launching point for attaining total defense manufacturing visibility.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning of 1961 is just as true today: “[W]e can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense.” We in Congress need to move beyond emergency improvisation and work together to augment the administration’s executive order and make this important study a success. By arming ourselves with total defense manufacturing visibility today, we can prevent or win the wars of tomorrow.
Congressman Mike Gallagher (R) represents Wisconsin’s 8th district in Congress. He is a member of the House Armed Services Subcommittees on Seapower and Projection Forces and Readiness. You can follow him on Twitter: @RepGallagher
Image: U.S. Navy