U.S. defense industrial base is vulnerable and needs fixing

During an official visit to Beijing this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his counterpart that aggressive action by the Chinese government against its neighbors in the East China Sea would be met with a firm response. 

“The Philippines and Japan are long-time allies of the United States,” Hagel said. “We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of those two countries. And we are fully committed to those treaty obligations.”

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It would be unwise to doubt the current ability of the U.S. military to fulfill such obligations, in Asia or elsewhere. But the choices that U.S. leaders make today will determine whether America’s armed forces, and the brave men and women who constitute them, will retain their edge and win those fights in the future.

U.S. strategy has long been undergirded by technology. When the commander in chief sends U.S. forces into battle, they have weapons, platforms, and other gear that can outperform any competitor. And it’s our obligation as American citizens to ensure that our nation’s warfighters retain that technological advantage.

An underappreciated fact, however, is that the maintenance of this advantage is directly related to the strength of the U.S. defense industrial base. A collection of private firms large and small, these companies provide the military with its equipment, from warplanes and precision-guided missiles to uniforms and night vision devices.

Assuredly, the Department of Defense (DOD) understands the importance of its own health. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) stated that “U.S. innovations in warfighting, which have provided key capability advantages…are built on the continued strength of our defense industrial base.” And several programs within the Pentagon are already underway to preserve that strength. But the sheer number of demands placed on DOD — not to mention the stresses of sequestration and budget uncertainty — means that a lot of work is still left to be done.

The U.S. defense industrial base relies on supply chains that are increasingly complex and globalized. In many cases, this has allowed American firms to harness the creativity and dynamism of the global market. But too often, these supply chains create vulnerabilities and are subject to manipulation by strategic competitors.

Consider that a single company in China manufactures a key chemical required to make Hellfire missile propellant. Without access to it, DOD is suddenly denied one of its most effective battlefield weapons.

And note China’s market dominance of the mining and processing of rare earth elements required to produce many high-tech defense electronics. Beijing has taken steps to limit their export and to privilege Chinese companies. And while the World Trade Organization recently ruled that such a policy violates global trade rules, whether China will comply with the ruling remains an open question.

It is easy to be complacent on this issue. The need to save money during a defense drawdown is a constant pressure, and U.S. firms can currently buy much of what they need on the global market.

But even as the QDR acknowledges the importance of the defense industrial base, U.S. procurement policy cannot afford to assume that the global order will remain open and benign. The United States needs to take a longer view, and link its military strategy with the supply chains needed to execute it. Failure to preserve and protect the most important defense supply chains from disruption and exploitation is simply strategic folly.

Moreover, military strategy must be linked with the ability of the defense industrial base to support it, or, as the QDR puts it, “…the Department must ensure that technological superiority is maintained in areas most critical to meeting current and future military challenges.” It is time for the Pentagon to provide policy guidance to the firms that comprise the defense industrial base about which supply chains are most important so that they can ensure they are available in the future.

Recently, Foreign Policy reported that the U.S Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security had suspended U.S. exports of “defense article and defense services” to Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that China wouldn’t take similar steps against the United States if it became involved in a serious crisis in the South China Sea?

I think not. But let’s work to remove that concern. Future commanders in chief shouldn’t need to ask for permission from America’s strategic competitors to defend our country. Even in a time of declining defense spending, U.S. leaders must invest today to preserve the American defense industrial base. It is vulnerable. And America should fix it now.

Adams retired in 2007 after over 30 years of active duty. He is the president of Guardian Six Consulting, and the author of Remaking American Security, an investigation of U.S. defense supply chain vulnerabilities, published in 2013 by The Alliance for American Manufacturing.