America needs to grow its capacity to produces weapons. Here’s four steps to do it.

America needs to grow its capacity to produces weapons. Here’s four steps to do it.
‘Ammo country:’ Pride in munitions

A row of Guided Bomb Unit 32s lie on a munitions assembly conveyer at Langley Air Force Base, Va., March 5, 2013. (U.S. Air Force/Kayla Newman)

Defense leaders throughout the NATO alliance have been sounding the alarm that production rates of munitions and weapons must increase. But how to get there? Jerry McGinn, a former DoD official and acquisition expert, lays out his guidance below. 

American military support has been crucial to Ukraine’s thus far successful efforts to withstand the unjust military invasion Russia launched a year ago. The rapid consumption and difficulties ramping up production of munitions such as Javelins, Stingers, and HIMARS are a wakeup call, however. If supporting Ukraine creates this much stress on our defense industrial base, it is frightening to think about the impact of an extended military campaign in the Taiwan Straits, let alone conflicts on multiple fronts.

There are roughly 200,000 vendors who provide systems, supplies, parts, and manufacturing for Department of Defense programs. A very small number of those — roughly 50 — are prime contractors who deliver the systems used by our forces as well as our allies and partners such as Ukraine. Given the specialized nature of military equipment and the monopsony marketplace that is government contracting, the number of primes drops even further when you look at individual market areas, such as shipbuilding, ground vehicles, or precision munitions, a market status that has remained fairly stable over the past two decades. With essentially one customer for many military systems, it requires active industry and government management to ensure that specific industrial base sectors maintain an adequate number of providers to support defense needs.

Beyond the primes, the vast majority of vendors are subcontractors. Diminishing manufacturing sources and parts obsolescence, shortages, and delays are key elements on the critical path to quickly scaling up production and replenishing supplies provided to Ukraine. Ninety eight percent of second-tier and third-tier suppliers in the munitions industrial base, for example, are single or sole source. These supply chain challenges are prevalent throughout the defense industrial base and are a reflection of the highly specialized nature of defense production.

Despite these shortcomings, our industrial base develops and fields the best military systems in the world. We ultimately get the defense industrial base we buy, so additional resources are part of the solution. However, building the industrial base resilience necessary to counter threats from Russia, China, and beyond requires a greater focus on capacity. Here are four steps to help get us moving in that direction.

Step One: Produce More

The experience in Ukraine has demonstrated that we clearly do not produce enough materiel for a sustained fight. Missile and munitions production have rightly received a lot of attention in recent months, but the lack of stability in munitions funding over time has been quite stark.

Our analysis of 80 missile and ammunition accounts over 20 years found that a particular munition’s actual funding is likely to swing more than 50% year-over-year. Not surprisingly, this engenders high levels of uncertainty and instability for the government program managers overseeing and the companies producing these systems. In Ukraine’s wake, DoD and Congress have moved quickly to establish multi-year procurement for munitions and increase production capacity, but it will take years to significantly ramp up production and replenish stockpiles.

RELATED: NATO must collaborate, be ‘smarter’ about rebuilding munition stockpiles: Official

The need to produce more goes way beyond munitions. Wargames of a potential US-China conflict over Taiwan have consistently resulted in massive losses of planes and ships that the production rates we have become used to in the last 30 years could not come close to matching. We can and should increase production rates of existing programs to address the potential wartime contingencies facing us.

We can also multiply our capacity with commercial technology. Commercial and tactical drones such as Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost have started to proliferate in Ukraine. These capabilities are dramatically less expensive and more quickly resupplied than advanced military systems. Ukraine has in many ways become a testing ground for former Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Director Mike Brown’s “fast follower” approach to rapidly incorporate commercial technology into DoD. US military leaders have clearly taken notice and are actively exploring ways to deploy commercially-derived unmanned systems in collaboration with major platforms, gaining warfighting capacity in theater at much greater speed and lower cost.

Step Two: Buy Differently

The need for greater capacity also requires that we rethink how we buy major systems. Our acquisition system is structured to develop the most capable systems in the world at the lowest possible risk. The defense acquisition system has incredibly detailed and thorough processes to ensure competition and fairness. From the development of requirements through source selection, acquisition officials work diligently to get things right. This takes time, however, which lengthens the period it takes to deliver capabilities to the warfighter into decades. The way the Department plans, programs, and budgets reinforces this deliberate and timely process.

We don’t have that time anymore.

Recent calls for the return to World War II’s arsenal for democracy with Bill Knudsen and his dollar-a-year-men, Liberty Ships, and massive industrial mobilization are inspiring, but the more recent effort to develop and field the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle may be a more apt approach for the near term. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates drove a radically different acquisition approach in the face of dramatically escalating casualties and deaths of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan during the late 2000’s due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). With an extremely limited set of requirements focused on improving soldier survivability, the department gave industry multiple opportunities to rapidly develop and deploy numerous MRAP versions over a short period of time.

This approach focused on outcomes, rather than process, helped save countless lives and involved multiple companies in the delivery of critical capabilities to the warfighter. DoD can take a similar approach today by streamlining time-consuming requirements processes and even selecting multiple sources for production in key programs. If the Army opted to select two systems for production at the end of Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle’s prototyping phase, for example, the service could continue to drive innovation and competition as well as gain industrial base capacity throughout the life of the program. More broadly, it is certainly time to reconsider the merits of this approach, most prominently championed by the late Jacques Gansler in the F-35 alternative engine program debate.

Adapting the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) process is also essential to increase speed and build capacity. Commercial industry has long ago moved on from the linear processes undergirding PPBE to approaches focused on portfolio management and agile acquisition. The PPBE Reform Commission is actively examining ways to incorporate these kinds of methods and will hopefully spur increased innovation, transparency, and collaboration between the Department and Congress, leading to more execution flexibility and speed in the fielding of systems.

Step Three: Strengthen Supply Chains

Within the lower tiers of the defense industrial base, we can increase capacity by focusing on strategies like second sourcing to reduce bottlenecks in the manufacturing process. High requalification costs have traditionally stymied many of these efforts, but the benefits can be substantial. For example, second sourcing the A-10’s depleted uranium ammunition resulted in an 80 percent reduction compared to the cost estimate. Program offices and industry partners could cost-share targeted second-sourcing initiatives to help increase capacity in critical areas.

Tackling obsolescence is another way to increase capacity. Obsolescence issues impact all the munitions being shipped to Ukraine and virtually all DoD systems, and the Department spends $2.6 billion addressing it each year, according a 2016 Institute for Defense Analyses study. Planned technology refreshes and, potentially, additive manufacturing could help mitigate these challenges.

We are making progress in some areas, though. Prior experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple reviews of the defense industrial base have led to significant government-led investments to re-shore capabilities such as rare earth processing, specialty chemicals and materials, microelectronics, and numerous other areas to help increase capacity in long-lead areas. These are very welcome, but commercialization strategies will be essential to help these industries maintain and grow over time.

Step Four: Adopt A ‘Build Allied’ Approach

Finally, we can also expand our defense industrial base with a little help from our friends. NATO and other allies have provided equipment to Ukraine, most allies buy U.S. defense systems, and many also produce major parts or sub-systems that are incorporated into platforms principally delivered by U.S. primes. Three current examples of this industrial collaboration include the significant allied contributions to the F-35 Lightning II fighter program, the long-running NATO Sea Sparrow Consortium, and the Norwegian company Nammo’s somewhat controversial development of a second engine source for the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.

The National Defense Strategy underscores the imperative of increasing cooperation with allies and partners to build “enduring advantages” in the joint force. DoD leaders such as Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment Dr. Bill LaPlante have called for an increase in co-production, licensed production, and cooperative programs. Fortunately, we have numerous venues such as the National Technology Industrial Base (NTIB), the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) partnership, and the newly minted NATO Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) initiative.

The key, however, is to use these vehicles to drive robust industrial collaboration. The NTIB has clearly struggled in that regard; AUKUS’s programmatic focus is more promising but has also hit headwinds. Whatever the fora, changes in contracting approaches and incentive structures are important components of the solution, but focused efforts around technology transfer are also essential. The latter will require some focused export control reforms to deliver and scale the robust “Build Allied” approach critical for the future.

There are no overnight solutions, but we must have more capacity to achieve the industrial base resilience necessary for tomorrow’s fight in China, Europe, or elsewhere. Getting there requires a multi-faceted effort bringing out the best of DoD, allies and partners, and industry. Our experience since COVID and supporting Ukraine has helped lay the foundation for this unleashing of the defense industrial base. Now let’s get after it.

Jerry McGinn, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Greg and Camille Baroni Center for Government Contracting in George Mason University’s School of Business and a former senior defense acquisition official.