Is helping Ukraine reducing US preparedness, security?
Questions are mounting as to how long the United States can continue to supply Ukraine from its own weapons stockpiles without hindering its own security.
With more than $27 billion in weapons committed to Kyiv since the start of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, attack on the country, Washington shows no sign of slowing down on shipping munitions and other lethal aid overseas.
But experts question what that might mean for U.S. military readiness should another conflict arise with China in the near future, with a U.S. defense industry that is far behind where it needs to be to account for a major war.
That concern is merited, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which found that the U.S. defense-industrial base is ill-prepared for Washington to enter a fight with Beijing over Taiwan’s independence, in addition to aiding Kyiv.
Among the most alarming points in the report was the estimate that the U.S. military would run out of critical long-range, precision-guided munitions within a week should China start a fight in the Taiwan Strait.
The war in Ukraine has “exposed serious deficiencies in the U.S. defense industrial base,” according to Seth Jones, the report’s author.
“Given the lead time for industrial production, it would likely be too late for the defense industry to ramp up production if a war were to occur without major changes,” he said.
The estimate as to how long the U.S. can continue to pull from its own weapons stocks and how fast defense firms can refill them has been a topic of discussion since shortly after the war began.
Since nearly a year ago, Washington has pledged to send Ukraine everything from helmets to high-tech systems, including a Patriot air defense battery, Bradley fighting vehicles, various types of missiles and now M1 Abrams tanks. The military aid, along with that of other Western allies, has been credited with helping the Ukrainian troops beat back Russian forces in the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
But the war, which currently has no end in sight, has exposed weaknesses within the U.S. defense industry.
With the U.S. withdrawal of the Afghanistan War in August 2021, the nation found itself not directly involved in a conflict for the first time in 20 years. The end of that American chapter meant a drop in the U.S. of manufactured material needed to produce weapons and ammunition for a war.
Further hampering the weapons supply chain were production delays and worker shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, defense firms claimed.
What’s more, Jones said defense manufacturers have for decades been working under the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, which as the years went on became less demanding for major war-fighting weapons and ammunition.
The Pentagon, however, has remained steadfast in its insistence that there’s no cause for concern.
In May, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted that the U.S. military would not go below its readiness requirements after being pressed by Senate lawmakers over how it would replenish munitions being sent overseas.
“It’s very critical to ensure that we maintain what we consider to be our minimum required stockage levels, and you can rest assured that I will not allow us to go below that in critical munitions,” Austin told Senate lawmakers at the time.
And just this week, Defense Department press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder brushed off questions over the numbers of munitions being expended in Ukraine and what it means for U.S. stockpiles in the event of another conflict, telling reporters the U.S. military won’t “do anything that’s going to affect our readiness or our ability to meet our national security requirements.”
But the fears are not unwarranted.
In November, CNN reported that the Pentagon’s stockpiles of certain systems including 155mm artillery shells and some missiles were “dwindling.”
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser also with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, earlier this month also identified 155 mm artillery rounds as part of six categories of weapons and ammunition that won’t be restocked for at least three years, forecasting that some might not be rebuilt for up to 18 years.
Cancian, who pulled from Defense Department documents and sources for his report, said certain artillery shells could eventually run low enough to reach a crisis point for Ukraine.
“What will happen is that they will have to prioritize targets as the flow of ammunition slows,” he said of Ukrainian forces. “They can’t fire at everything, they’ll only fire at the highest priority.”
Pentagon Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters in November that “there’s no question” the constant flow of weapons to Ukraine has “put pressure” on U.S. stockpiles and the industrial base.
“We’re seeing the first example in many decades of a real high intensity conventional conflict and the strain that that produces on not just the countries involved but the defense industrial bases of those supporting, in this case supporting Ukraine,” Kahl said.
He insisted, however, that the U.S. military has not been put “in a dangerous position as it relates to another major contingency somewhere in the world” due to the constant flow of lethal aid given to Ukraine.
Still, the heads of several military services have recently acknowledged that they’re keeping a close eye on their own weapons stocks to ensure they have enough to keep up readiness should the U.S. be pulled into a conflict.
If “you draw that down too much, now the risk is on you,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told reporters in December. “Your own readiness might suffer if you didn’t monitor it closely. So we have to do that and we have.”
And Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro earlier this month told reporters that if defense contractors can’t increase production in the next six to 12 months, Washington could find it “challenging” to help Ukraine and arm itself at the same time.
“With regards to deliveries of weapons systems for the fight in Ukraine … yeah, that’s always a concern for us,” Del Toro said, as reported by Defense One. “And we monitor that very, very closely. I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet, but if the conflict does go on for another six months, for another year, it certainly continues to stress the supply chain in ways that are challenging.”
But there is a cause for optimism.
Jones said the Pentagon is aware of its industrial base issue and could address it by awarding multiyear contracts with defense manufacturers to produce munitions, something that has typically not been done in the past.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, revealed on Wednesday that it is set to place a number of large orders in the next two months to replenish the drained U.S. stockpiles.
“There are going to be several big awards coming in February and March that will just move us further down that path,” said Doug Bush, assistant Army secretary for acquisition, logistics, and technology.
Defense production companies also have publicly said they are working to increase production supply. Two of the largest defense manufacturers, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said during an investor call this month the company has the capacity to meet demand, but still needs more materials, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Lockheed Martin pointed The Hill toward a quarterly earnings call with CEO Jim Taiclet this week in which he noted several ways to increase production.
Taiclet said the Defense Department should fix multiyear contracts, ease the burden of auditing and regulation on smaller companies in particular, and bolster supply chains to ensure there are multiple sources of components.
“This issue of restocking raised an important industry issue that we’re going to try to work with government to solve,” he said in the call.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
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