Rosie the CNC Machinist: American Manufacturing as a Warfare Domain


For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the rider was lost;
For want of a rider the battle was lost;
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost;
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

What would happen if demand for Alcoa’s 50,000-ton press were to double overnight? Since 1955, the United States has owned exactly one machine with that capacity, and as recently as 2012, it was necessary to produce every single manned aircraft used by the U.S. military or manufactured by Boeing. It weighs 16 million pounds. Making a second or third just to have for excess capacity, is not feasible. There are many examples like this throughout the U.S. defense industry, presenting a chilling fact: Production capacity cannot rapidly adapt to the giant production demand increases associated with great power wars.

The U.S. government is addressing this problem, which is raised in the National Security Strategy. Early in October, an executive branch task force published a report on the U.S. defense industrial base, prompted by Executive Order 13806. What are the solutions? How can U.S. domestic manufacturing and supply chains sustain a great power war effort?

This report might provide the best insights into U.S. materiel supply shortages and, while it is biased as a tool of the current administration and limited in scope as the unclassified release, it should be discussed at length. This article will make two arguments. First, the solution to this problem needs significant industry initiative and action; the problem cannot be resolved at the legislative level without this input. Second, this conversation needs to involve the “tangential” supply base for the U.S. military: those domestic manufacturers, researchers, and raw material suppliers who are not currently involved in the defense industrial base but could be in the event of a major conflict. In analyzing manufacturing weaknesses, abilities, and potential abilities, this article will refer to the tangential supply base as an expanded interpretation of dual- use technology: Those manufacturing technologies that could be applied to defense applications but are currently not. The tangential supply base consists of such dual- use technologies that are currently not being put to military use.

Rep. Mike Gallagher has discussed this at length, including in two articles he published last year in War on the Rocks. In his first, “Towards Total Defense Manufacturing Visibility,” he brought up a number of points that ended up in the executive report. His example of Navy dry docks as sparse, irreplaceable, and vital to mission, introduces the problem that the U.S. defense supply network must account for in any valuable analysis.

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 [emphasis added].

In his second article, “Hedging Our Bets: Reviving Defense Industrial Surge Capacity,” Gallagher looks to the best example of U.S. industry championing a war economy: World War II. He discusses the five underlying factors that enabled America’s economic success: (1) the relative size of the U.S. economy as compared to adversaries, (2) the yet-untapped labor pool in the female population, (3) the self-sufficiency in natural resources the United States enjoyed, (4) the ability of the civilian industry to adapt to wartime demand, and finally (5) the First War Powers Act. The third and fourth factors, and the changes to them that have taken place since the 1940s, are most important to this discussion. Is the United States still self-sufficient in natural resources? Can civilian industry still adapt fast enough to wartime demands?

Running on Empty: Re-sourcing, Stockpiling, and Bypassing

Today, the U.S. supply chain is significantly more reliant on raw materials that are not found in the United States than it had been in Word War II. Many of these are used in the most advanced defense equipment. To name a few examples, rare earth metals, high-performance alloys, exotic materials, and despite the recent surge in shale gas, a significant amount of oil and other energy demands must be sourced internationally. This problem has been present for decades, but is becoming increasingly problematic as cutting-edge technology now requires global material sourcing. As an example, see the CIA’s efforts during the SR-71 project to procure rutile ore from the USSR through shell companies. Japan’s struggles for steel and oil in World War II are analogous to current U.S. struggles for rare earths and at least 14 key elements necessary for advanced manufacturing.

Developing viable alternatives for these without sacrificing performance demands a great deal of further research and development, but would be integral to maintaining domestic self-sufficiency and resiliency through the inevitable attrition of high-performance assets. U.S. engineers and research institutions may be able to chip away at these limitations by further developing technical understanding and capabilities. Could the United States viably direct more research towards these areas? Is there a commercial interest in stockpiling some of these resources, or would this remain a national asset similar to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve? In the event that all or some of these cannot be replaced or stockpiled, U.S. war planners must have an accounting for current inventories and use rates, and a mapping of what capabilities would not be replaceable in the event of war in order to account for losses at the strategic level.

Dual-Use Manufacturing: Ploughshares into Swords

Today’s discussions are mostly driven by the changes in the paradigms that allowed for domestic shifts in manufacturing capability that sustained the war effort through massive U.S. asset casualties in World War II. Famously, Ford was able to convert its automobile lines into bomber lines. Similar examples can be found in any domestic account of the war effort. Since military technologies have advanced so greatly, the manufacturing methods necessary for their production have become so specialized that it will no longer be as viable as it once was to convert between product lines. The difference in manufacturing requirements between a B-24 and a Ford Model 48, compared to the difference in manufacturing requirements between an F-35 and a Ford F-150, represent such a difference in magnitude that a different strategy will be required for similar results. The difference in processing between the 20th century examples was significant but incremental. Both require stamping, riveting, welding, and the assembly of piston-driven internal combustion engines. Much of that remains the same or similar for a 21st century car, with evolutionary changes: robotic assembly machines and the addition of computer control systems. Contrast this with the revolutionary changes found in a 21st century warplane, which now requires advanced metallurgy, CNC or EDM machining, avionics, and special processing that is not found in any automotive plant in the country. Further, much of it isn’t even found in the plant that births new F-35s; the lack of vertical integration adopted by defense manufacturers has commercial advantages but poses a problem to any demands for rapidly increased levels of production and high velocity change.

The key to the necessary resiliency — as opposed to the redundancy suggested by calls for increased spending — is finding these manufacturing capabilities in other domestic industries. Perhaps the machining capabilities are found in surgical tool manufacturers; the heat-treating capabilities found in stationary power plant producers; the metallurgy found in a research lab at a private university. Finding, mapping, and adapting these varied and scattered capabilities requires action from their process owners and from a central planning body. Finally, this planning must adapt for the changes in warfare that have occurred since World War II. Perhaps less action will be necessary from Ford and more from Texas Instruments or IBM.

A Way Forward: Finding, Organizing, and Incentivizing

The overall strategy will require cooperation from the government to organize and incentivize, from the current defense industrial base to share information and develop relationships with suppliers, and from American manufacturers to adapt to new markets and demands. American manufacturers should take a strong look at their capabilities to evaluate what pivots they could make in support of the defense industrial base. One framework for this self-evaluation that would suit current needs — incentivizing, networking, planning, and brainstorming — would be a Pentagon-organized manufacturing network. The end would be to connect manufacturers in much the same way that industries self-organize currently — through periodicals, conventions, and professional organizations and networks. The motivation for manufacturers directly mirrors the motivations that draw membership and attendance to other industry organizations — exposure to competition, up-and-coming technologies and techniques, and better market awareness. However, by being organized through the office of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, these manufacturers will be catalogued and organized by their abilities, potential abilities, and shortcomings.

Responsibilities for this plan will lie with three bodies: the Department of Defense, U.S. tangential manufacturers, and defense suppliers. The Defense Department should identify key defense assets susceptible to attrition in a great power conflict; manufacturing requirements for these assets; “pinch points” in which the manufacturing base is at or near capacity already; commercial applications with similar manufacturing requirements to those identified already; and “recruit” any tangential manufacturers currently performing similar manufacturing processes.

The tangential manufacturers should engage with the network organized by the DoD; communicate with defense suppliers about potential requirements; develop contingency plans for potential pivots to defense work; and develop the infrastructure necessary for business with defense suppliers. This could take many shapes and is where the majority of the effort from the supply base must occur. Tangential suppliers can seek additional certifications, such as ITAR or ISO, that are required by the defense industry. They can identify key bases of knowledge and expertise within their organization who would be of help to other manufacturers — and, conversely, identify where they could benefit from outside knowledge. They can investigate their vulnerability to targeted cyber or physical security attacks, and take actions to address those weaknesses. They can develop contingency plans to employ some of the 40 percent of Americans who are not currently seeking employment. It is worth noting that all of these actions have significant potential for commercial benefits, without the event of war.

Finally, defense suppliers should develop working relationships with the tangential suppliers identified by the Department of Defense. They should develop the contacts and plans to expand into a backup supply chain to meet heightened production demand. This would include a sharing of standards and the development of training programs for suppliers, to expedite their incorporation into the defense supply chain. They must create realistic models for this type of expansion; supply chain development can take years or decades but this transition must happen in weeks and months.

Recent U.S. strategic documents aptly capture the nature of a looming era of great power competition. However, they fail to account for the scale and character of that competition, especially the outsized effects on the economy. Adjusted to 2018 dollars, World War II cost 6.5 trillion dollars a year, or 36 percent of current U.S. GDP during its peak in 1945. Since this time, American manufacturing and the materiel requirements of major power wars have changed drastically. Gen. George Marshall’s economic strategies would not directly apply today. There is significant need to address these changes if the United States should ever find itself in such a major conflict again. Buy-in from U.S. manufacturers is imperative to this effort.

Resilience of the defense supply base is crucial to national security. However, it cannot take the form of excess capacity during peacetime; this is neither politically nor economically viable at the scale necessary. Instead, the untapped resources in the US — the rest of the manufacturing base, producing everything from cars to scalpels to WiFi routers — should be engaged. This engagement must be organized by the government and must benefit manufacturers whether or not a great power conflict should occur.


Joe Duggan is a former naval officer in the Information Warfare Community who now works in the heavy manufacturing industry. He holds a BSME from the University of Michigan. All views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or any part of the United States government.

Image: Snyder

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