Breaking Defense

Israel, Ukraine, and the Pentagon Need Munitions. The US Needs a Wartime Mindset to Deliver.

The US has been struggling to keep up with munitions since the war in Ukraine started. In this op-ed, Nadia Schadlow discusses the need for a surge in munitions production for the US, Ukraine and Israel.

A 7th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member assists in the transportation of the Launcher Load Frame to the flight-line for loading at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 9, 2023. The concept for pre-loading munitions has been around since the B-1 first entered service but has gone unused for 30 years until 7 AMXS resurrected the capability this winter. The LLF is a piece of equipment that allows weapons loaders to pre-load munitions on a launcher, under the cover of a facility, prior to tran
A crew member assists in the transportation of the Launcher Load Frame to the flight-line for loading at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, on January 9, 2023. (Josiah Brown via DVIDS)

Since the war in Ukraine began, governments around the globe have been scrambling to secure munitions and increase production. The new conflict between Israel and Hamas, with the US pledging to send Israeli munitions, will only exacerbate the issue. In this new op-ed, Nadia Schadlow of the Hudson Institute argues that the US needs to change its production mindset to meet requirements from allies and partners.

No one knows how the war in Israel will turn out. But what we do know is that Israelis will need a steady supply of ammunition in their fight to push terrorists out of their country and to remove Hamas from power. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel consumed ammunition at an industrial scale, and Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, has noted that the conflict today will hinge on similar supplies. To support allies under fire and restore our own deterrence capabilities, the United States must take measures now to move from peacetime production to wartime rates.

Such a move is not just for Israel. Surging production today will strengthen deterrence for the United States at a time when Washington has appeared exceptionally weak to our enemies, having surrendered power to the Taliban in Afghanistan, paid ransom to Iran and temporized in its support of Ukraine.

Weakness invites aggression, and our enemies do not and will not hesitate to exploit our shortcomings. There is war now in Europe and the Middle East. To deter war in Asia and restore deterrence, the United States needs to make a decisive shift away from peacetime to wartime thinking.

Acting now to provide Israel with the munitions it needs — and to continue providing them to Ukraine — is an investment in US security. It forces us today to develop the surge capacity that we should have for the future. As has already been pointed out by industry leaders, doubling or tripling capacity currently takes several years. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently promised additional equipment and munitions to Israel. But unless DoD — supported by the White House and Congress — takes steps that have already been identified, this will not be possible to maintain for long.

A wartime mindset will require several changes.

First, Congress must accept the need for multiyear production contracts to provide industry with the necessary demand signals. Industry has the capability to produce more munitions and missiles, but they need to know that they can take orders today for the components they will need tomorrow. This is squarely in Congress’ hands: Defense Department leaders have asked for the authority to negotiate multiyear procurement contracts to allow production lines to remain open. This has the added advantage of saving money and reducing costs.

Second, Defense Department leaders have the power to streamline the contracting process. Congress has allowed DoD to waive certain onerous and inefficient contracting requirements — but DoD has used these new approaches only sparingly and still are interpreting requirements tightly. Such hesitancy is ill-considered. The Secretary of Defense could direct his subordinates to abide by the provisions in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act and accelerate contracting timelines.

Third, we must make full use of existing production lines. We are not currently doing so. The White House should send Congress a supplemental request for production increases on lines that have excess capacity: From Stingers and ATACMS to Joint Strike Missiles and Naval Strike Missiles, many production lines are not yet maxed out in fiscal year 2024. Regarding ATACMS, according to a senior staffer on the SASC, we can build almost another 300 this year; the line produces 500 weapons annually and there’s about 200 already on order for FY24 FMS.

Congress can plus up these and other weapons beyond current military requirements so DoD can accommodate future needs in addition to continuing efforts to start buying new generation weapons. The current mentality and production architecture — even, somehow, after 18 months of war in Ukraine — is that we cannot “buy them ahead of need.” Precisely because we cannot predict the future, we must move away from “just in time” procurement.

Related to this, we could prioritize munitions for delivery to support current conflicts and US stockpiles. While Lockheed Martin has produced about 4,000 ATACM missiles since production began — including 211 since the beginning of the Ukraine war — these sales should be prioritized correctly. The Biden administration notified Congress in April of the pending sale of 40 of the missiles to Morocco; those weapons could be better prioritized elsewhere. Some of the current production gap can be abated if the administration makes strategic decisions about where to send our most needed weapons to support allies and partners.

Fourth, the United States must restore the ability to acquire and deploy the chemical compounds, called energetic materials, that go into munitions. We have no domestic sources for TNT as the DoD decided, years ago, to stop production. We now rely on Poland, a country on the front line with Russia, for this compound, meaning if Moscow gets adventurous this supply source would be under threat. Take another example: sebacic acid – which is derived from castor beans and is a critical precursor ingredient for materials essential for the production of critical chemicals used in virtually all munition systems. Sebacic acid is produced on an industrial scale in China, Japan, Russia and India, but the US does not have significant domestic production capabilities.

Facilities that do produce important compounds, like the Army’s Holsten facility in Tennessee, are hampered by regulations that prevent the plant from operating at full capacity. These self-imposed obstacles could be addressed by DoD leadership. As long as DoD leaders do not remove these obstacles — and they could — plants like these do not operate at full capacity. This reduces our ability to produce warheads needed for precision weapons such as Javelin, Hellfire and AAMRAM. There have been recommendations on how to improve the U.S. energetics enterprise for close to two decades. It is urgent that solutions are implemented.

Fifth, the White House should lean into broader fixes for the defense industrial base. Months ago, the Department of Defense used almost $200 million in Defense Production Act funding to drastically expand solid rocket motor production at Aerojet Rocketdyne. The same move could be used to expand solid rocket motor work at Adranos in Mississippi and the Northrop Grumman facility in West Virginia, or address industry-wide common component shortages — such as ball bearings and jet engines for cruise missiles.

To be clear, policy makers need greater transparency from industry if they are to flow taxpayers dollars into corporate coffers; DoD must require industry to share what firms know about their supply chains to make sure money is being spent wisely. At the same time, the Department needs to be a partner — not an obstacle — in helping industry to resolve problems that have built up over decades. DoD itself must provide more transparency regarding its inventories. While defense officials recently pushed back on stories that it was not sure how many ATACM missiles it had in its inventory, the fact is data on ammunition is a mess, with the services all using different data formats, making it hard to know who has what in its arsenals.

These are some steps that could help in the near term. But they are merely small parts of the larger problem of modernizing the defense industrial base to support this era of great power competition. Changes should have been undertaken earlier. Now, time is of the essence.

China, Russia and Iran cannot be deterred — or defeated if conflict cannot be avoided — if the United States cannot sustain its forces, or support its partners and allies, in protracted wars. At the very least, we need an industrial base and a stockpile that makes other countries say, “not today.”

Read in Breaking Defense.