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A 21st Century Defense Industrial Strategy for America
A researcher displays a silicon wafer, an essential material used in the production of semiconductors and other technologies critical to US national security. (Getty Images)
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A 21st Century Defense Industrial Strategy for America

Ellen Lord & Jeffrey Nadaner

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In many ways, Americans have every reason to be confident about our national security future.

The American military is still the most powerful in the world. Its leading defense industry companies are still global leaders in weapons innovation and production. Likewise, the Department of Defense is still the colossus of the federal system, i.e., the single biggest buyer of goods in the US government. But unless the industrial and manufacturing base that develops and builds those goods modernizes and adjusts to the world’s new geopolitical and economic realities, America will face a growing and likely permanent national security deficit.

America’s defense industrial base was once the wonder of the free world, constituting a so-called “military-industrial complex” that, regardless of criticism, was the model for, and envy of, every other country—and the mainstay of peace and freedom for two generations after World War II. Today, however, that base faces problems that necessitate continued and accelerated national focus over the coming decade, and that cannot be solved by assuming that advanced technologies like autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, and quantum will wave those challenges away, and magically preserve American leadership.

On the contrary, those advanced technologies themselves rely on a manufacturing complex whose capability and capacity will have to be trusted and secure to protect the Pentagon’s most vital supply chains. These include microelectronics, space, cyber, nuclear, and hypersonics, as well as the more conventional technologies that make up our legacy defense equipment.

What will be required is a defense industrial strategy based on a four-part program to:

  1. Reshore our defense industrial base and supply chains to the United States and to allies, starting with microelectronics, and restore our shipbuilding base.
  2. Build a modern manufacturing and engineering workforce and research and development (R&D) base.
  3. Continue to modernize the defense acquisition process to fit 21st century realities.
  4. Find new ways to partner private sector innovation with public sector resources and demand.

All these steps will be necessary to create a robust, resilient, secure, and innovative industrial base. The defense industrial base is a key to preserving and extending US competitive military dominance in the coming century and, with it, deterrence that will keep Americans safe and keep the peace. Realizing a defense industrial strategy will require a substantial commitment of capital investment and resources, as well as continuing and extending the reforms to the Defense Department’s industrial base that have been underway in the past several years.

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