Putin’s war sparked an urgent need to expand the US military-industrial base
Senior Pentagon officials recently invited leaders of the U.S. defense industry to discuss the need for replenishing the stockpiles of weapons that have been sent to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. This and the pacing threat of China are necessary for planning the production of weapons and services by our military industry. But they are not nearly enough for the new era ushered in by Vladimir Putin’s war.
True, the supplying of two particular weapon systems so far has put a significant dent in our stockpiles. We have sent Ukraine 33 percent of our Javelins — a portable anti-tank missile — and around 25 percent of our Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Pentagon has quite rightly said these must be replenished — or better still, replaced by more capable newer models. And as there is no indication that the war will end any time soon, we must assume the requirement for resupply will continue and even increase.
The mix of weapons will likely also change over time. Already, the Ukrainian president is asking for HIMRAS (rocket launchers), helicopters and drones. For effective use of these weapons, the Ukrainians will need training and sustainment assistance. The United States and/or NATO will need to organize quickly for this mission, perhaps by establishing a Military Assistance Command to train and sustain the Ukrainian forces. Such a step will also assist with the coordination of resupply operations among allies.
But the message to our defense industrial complex must be to go beyond replenishment of what we are sending to Ukraine. We are in an unfortunate and stark global era after the Russian invasion. The unprovoked aggression represents a sea change in the international security environment. This change requires a major expansion of our defense industrial base that addresses four urgent needs:
First, resupply allies and partners. They too have expended significant percentages of their own weapon stockpiles and face the same exigent need to backfill those readiness depots. The Russian invasion has educated Europeans about their continent’s security environment and collective security. Astonishingly, Finland and Sweden are now leaning toward joining NATO, and many others — Germany, in particular — are willing to spend significantly more on defense. This is very positive. The willingness to upgrade defense spending will also mean purchasing new and more powerful weapons to replace old and ineffective systems. Our defense industrial base should prepare to help them meet this important goal.
Second, the poor performance of Russian armed forces in Ukraine will cause those who have been relying on Russian systems, such as India, to reconsider those investments and future purchases. Additionally, the G-7 sanctions on Russia will undermine its ability to provide weapons in the numbers that Moscow had anticipated or provide the spare parts needed for systems already provided. This presents an opportunity to decrease Indian dependence on Russian weapons in key areas. India’s dependence on Russia for fighter jets, missiles and air defense systems has precipitated its ambivalent response to Russia’s naked aggression. Reducing key countries’ — especially India’s — dependence on Russia should guide both our strategy and how we map the path our military industry policy follows.
Third, the conflict has substantially increased the importance of Saudi Arabia’s capacity for increased oil production. The Biden administration has had frosty relations with Riyadh. Unlike the previous administration, the White House has kept Riyadh at arm’s length diplomatically and even denied or delayed the sale of several weapon systems. Now the administration is in the process of urgently attempting to reset these relations. A key component of this reset will be the increase in arms sales to help Saudi Arabia deal with the threat from Iran and its proxies, especially the Houthis, who have launched more than 800 attacks against Saudi Arabia, including some attacks against its major cities.
Fourth, this war has impacted geopolitical and security calculations beyond Europe. Indo-Pacific countries are now faced with potential conflict in their region involving China or North Korea that could start with little notice. The result would be catastrophic. This illuminates an urgent need to pre-position appropriate weapons in Taiwan for its defense in case of Chinese aggression. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s island disposition makes resupply immensely complex once hostilities are initiated. The administration has been lukewarm in its attitude towards the sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan. This must change. The supply of naval helicopters to Taiwan would be an important first step.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine requires a significant change in the tone, tenor and tempo of our foreign military sales. Ukraine demonstrates that our allies and partners need the military capability to defend themselves against aggression with little or no notice. This would act as a deterrent.
The U.S. military-industrial base is an essential instrument and bulwark against the multiple security threats that we and our allies and our partners face. Steadily rebuilding and upgrading the supply chain demands that we stay at the forefront of innovation and redouble our commitment and investment in research and development.
Creating new financing and contracting options, including public-private partnerships, will also support deeper investment in the manufacturing facilities of our key producers. Surging production must be accompanied by reducing foreign supplier dependence, which, unless addressed, can be an unintended problem for the global supply chain in a significant and prolonged regional crisis and conflict. These steps are fundamental components of preserving both our national security and our role as global leaders.
The expansion of our defense industrial base must also include addressing as soon as possible important shortages in capabilities for the current security environment. For example, we have a critical shortage of Patriot Missile defense systems, and Saudi Arabia’s security depends upon that air-defense coverage. We have not yet provided Riyadh with a Patriot battery since we withdrew the one we had provided for servicing. As a result, the Houthis were emboldened and our relations with the kingdom suffered. Iraqi Kurdistan is rocketed frequently by Iran and its proxies as well; it, too, needs Patriot missiles, or it may have no choice but to accommodate Iran.
Our military/industry base must be revitalized and expanded in order to deal with the geopolitical challenges we face in the years and decades ahead. This is an essential problem but can be overcome. Addressing it requires national commitment and resources, public-private partnership and bold leadership from the White House, the Pentagon and Congress. We cannot afford not to rise to this challenge.
Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He was the head of Policy Planning in the Department of Defense.