By Dustin Walker
The war in Ukraine has provided a reminder of the defense industrial base America once had, then squandered, and must build again—one with the scale, speed, responsiveness, and flexibility that enables America and its allies and partners to deter and defend against great power adversaries willing to wage war to achieve political objectives.
But this is a reminder we should not have needed. Long before the war in Ukraine, the shortcomings of America’s defense industrial base were well-documented.1,2 Moreover, there was consensus about the basic contours of the actions required to address the shortcomings of the defense industrial base.
However, what the war in Ukraine has uniquely highlighted is the severe disconnect between the Department of Defense’s (DOD) strategic and operational planning and its industrial base planning. There are multiple reasons for the loose connection between the critical needs of warfighters in specific scenarios and the priorities of industrial base policy.
Defense industrial base policy is not solely DOD’s purview. Even within the Pentagon, bureaucratic responsibility is diffuse. Likewise, the highly complex nature of defense industrial base issues—encompassing defense, the economy and jobs, infrastructure, immigration, trade, education, and more—can make progress seem like unobtanium. And with so much to be done, it can be difficult to sequence and prioritize corrective actions.
Moreover, operational planning and healing the defense industrial base seem to occur on different timelines. Campaign and contingency plans are reviewed and revised on a frequent basis with a focus on near-term horizons. Even taken in the near term, actions to expand the shipbuilding industrial base or increase supply chain resiliency will take many years to bear fruit—that is, if they are successful at all.
DOD needs to undertake a concerted effort to integrate the defense industrial base into its strategic and operational planning.
In developing future defense strategy documents such as the National Defense Strategy and Defense Planning Guidance, DOD should incorporate the defense industrial base directly into U.S. force planning and force sizing constructs.
Starting with a Taiwan scenario, DOD should develop “defense industrial base branch plans” as part of its contingency plans. Such a document would contain an assessment of industrial base-specific needs to support execution of operational plans: war reserve materiel requirements, prioritized wartime production needs, anticipated DPA Title I actions in wartime, alignment of DPA Title III actions with contingency plan requirements, and more.
In this paper, I offer five exemplary challenges confronting the United States and their implications for the defense industrial base. I focus on China as the pacing challenge and Taiwan as the pacing scenario. These examples are intended to provide an illustration of the kind of analysis DOD needs to undertake. And they highlight both the challenge and opportunity of aligning defense industrial base policy more closely to the needs of America’s warfighters.
- Force Planning & the Challenge of Simultaneity
The United States is on the verge of strategic insolvency. But a larger and faster defense industrial base may prove central to closing the gap between America’s strategic ambition and military ability.
As America’s margin of military superiority over China has diminished over the last 20 years, DOD has recognized that the possibility of simultaneous conflicts is a core strategic challenge for which it does not have sufficient capability and capacity. As a result, both the 2018 and 2022 National Defense Strategies focused on winning one major war while deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.
U.S. options for grappling with the simultaneity challenge are not particularly satisfactory. Threats of nuclear escalation to deter aggression would be both morally and politically unpalatable for an American president and may be of questionable credibility to an adversary.
Cyber and space capabilities for deterrence may be more appealing but are not a substitute for conventional forces. Increased contributions from allies and partners are essential, but overreliance on nations that may have different threat perceptions or lack the will to fight is inherently risky. Finally, building U.S. force structure sufficient to support a two-war construct is likely cost-prohibitive.
However, RAND Corporation’s Raphael Cohen argues the war in Ukraine offers a potential model—with defense industrial base at its center—of how the United States might deal with simultaneous conflicts.3 Cohen suggests a force planning construct in which the United States would “size its military to win one war against one major power but size its defense industrial base to provide the wherewithal to win two wars simultaneously — allowing the United States to fight one war directly and another by proxy.”
This is an appealing approach—one that is politically feasible and sustainable, seriously contends with hard power realities of simultaneity, and offers a cost-effective alternative to building a two-war U.S. force structure.
However, it does raise questions of feasibility. Just like conventional force structure, defense industrial base capacity will be stretched for the foreseeable future to meet requirements for deterrence and warfighting against China to say nothing of aiding an ally or partner to at the same time. Likewise, it is not clear how large a two-war defense industrial base—one that would be effective for secondary scenarios involving Russia, North Korea, and Iran—would need to be compared to what exists at present.
Regardless, Cohen is right to identify the defense industrial base as a key variable in formulating U.S. force planning. In the 2026 National Defense Strategy, the Department of Defense should explicitly integrate “defense industrial base sizing” into its overall force planning construct.
- Taiwan’s Self-Defense
Taiwan’s ability to defend itself is crucial for deterring and, if necessary, defeating Chinese aggression. As CSIS summarized the first of its four key findings from a series of wargames, “Taiwan must vigorously resist. If it does not, the rest is futile.”4 Moreover, because of its island geography and proximity to China, there will be no “Ukraine model” for Taiwan. That means that Taiwan must start the war with everything it needs. But simply put, it does not have that today.
The U.S. defense industrial base must help Taiwan build sufficient stockpiles of critical military equipment and supplies, especially ammunition. If it does not, steps to improve the defense industrial base to meet U.S. military needs may well prove irrelevant to deterring or defeating Chinese aggression against Taiwan. However, the U.S. defense industrial base has not yet been effectively harnessed to deliver necessary weapons stockpiles for Taiwan.
The Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system largely operates on a “first come, first served” basis rather than alignment to priorities established in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. As a result, despite a $19 billion FMS backlog of items approved but not delivered, Taiwan is still treated as just one of many priorities for the defense industrial base. Moreover, the notoriously fraught and cumbersome FMS process is a deterrent to many U.S. defense companies, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises who may conclude FMS sales to Taiwan are not worth the hassle and risk.
Both the U.S. and Taiwanese governments have sent mixed messages and uncertain demand signals to U.S. industry about arms purchases. In the past, the U.S. government preached asymmetric capabilities but sold fighter aircraft and tanks regardless. Taiwan adopted an Overall Defense Concept that heavily emphasized asymmetric capabilities, but later abandoned it, raising alarm among U.S. experts.5
The United States needs to focus the defense industrial base on building weapons stockpiles that will help Taiwan resist invasion. DOD should consider including Taiwan’s requirements for U.S.-produced munitions as part of its “Total Munitions Requirement.” Providing Taiwan Foreign Military Financing grants dedicated solely to asymmetric capabilities and ammunition would provide a strong market demand signal. Finally, the United States needs to implement broad reforms to the FMS process while adopting recent proposals to prioritize Taiwan for expedited receipt of certain purchased arms.6
- Persistent Targeting & Space
Munitions production and magazine depth, particularly of long-range, anti-ship missiles, is widely recognized. What is less often discussed is the persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities needed to effectively find, fix, track, target, and engage high value targets such as PLA amphibious landing ships, cruisers, and destroyers. In other words, all the LRASMs in the world are worth nothing if the U.S. military cannot see what it is shooting at.
To maintain persistent track quality against high value targets, the U.S. military will heavily rely on space capabilities. With significant advances in China’s anti-space capabilities, the U.S. has largely sought to address the vulnerabilities of its space constellation through proliferation, distribution, and resilience. Such an approach is necessary but insufficient. To deter and, if necessary, operate through Chinese attacks in space, the U.S. military requires the ability to rapidly reconstitute its space constellation.
However, today’s defense industrial base is not optimized to scale and surge in space. One bright spot is that the commercial space sector has led the way in increasing the number of launch providers and inventory of launch vehicles. But satellite production lines are often slow, labor intensive, and low-quantity. Stocks of spare parts are low. Lead times for space-qualified microelectronics are too long. And the United States heavily relies on just three primary launch facilities.
The United States needs to invest in increasingly automated mass production of satellites, including on-orbit spares and ground reserves. It needs to build stockpiles of spare parts and space-qualified microelectronics. And it needs to certify more U.S. and international spaceports for national security use.
- Uncrewed Systems
The U.S. military has a capacity problem. Thirty years of a “capability over capacity” mindset has left the U.S. military in an untenable position: perpetually shrinking with fewer numbers of highly expensive, exquisite, and vulnerable manned platforms; persistently strained to deter adversaries in multiple theaters; and potentially unable to win a protracted, high-end fight.
Expected attrition in a Taiwan scenario will challenge the U.S. military’s ability to sustain combat power even in a short conflict, let alone a protracted one. CSIS wargames estimated the first few weeks of war with China over Taiwan would claim dozens of U.S. ships (including multiple aircraft carriers) and hundreds of combat aircraft. These platforms would be irreplaceable in a time of war. And they will be difficult to produce in larger quantities during this “decisive decade” in which the threat of war is most acute.
The only way for the U.S. military to field affordable mass, regain its ability to absorb attrition, and credibly demonstrate the ability generate sustained combat power in a protracted conflict is to procure numerous, lower-cost, attritable, all-domain uncrewed systems produced by a diverse uncrewed systems (UxS) industrial base.
However, this is not the U.S. military’s current course due in part to the limitations of the broader defense industrial base. DOD has communicated uncertain demand for a variety of uncrewed systems, driving risk aversion among traditional defense contractors as well as commercial providers. Foreign dependencies for key UxS components are both risky and difficult to unravel. Federal regulations complicate development of large uncrewed systems by commercial vendors for defense purposes, particularly in the air domain. DOD’s linear and prescriptive requirements processes and complex and lengthy acquisition pathways are an obstacle to rapid innovation, experimentation, fielding, and scaling. And there are too few UxS producers. For example, a RAND analysis found that there are only two defense-only firms for uncrewed surface vehicles and uncrewed underwater vehicles.7
DOD needs to focus on cultivating a diverse collection of UxS vendors that can surge and scale production of defense-ready, off-the-shelf systems. It needs to signal increased and sustained demand for uncrewed systems, especially in the maritime domain. It needs to adopt more flexible, iterative, and outcome-oriented requirements. It needs to shift from complex multi-mission uncrewed platforms that drive up cost toward larger numbers of simple, collaborative systems. And DOD should prioritize uncrewed systems that can collaborate with manned platforms but operate independently of them.
- Military Health System
Confronting capacity challenges and operating over large distances, the U.S. military’s ability to treat its wounded personnel and return them to duty as quickly as possible would be critical to operational resilience in a conflict with China over Taiwan.
Recent CSIS wargames found that a conflict with China over Taiwan would be of lethal intensity unseen since World War II. It estimated U.S. casualties could exceed 10,000 in just the first few weeks. Such a sudden influx of trauma patients and challenges to evacuating wounded in contested environments could quickly tax or overwhelm the capacity, capability, and throughput of deployed military medical care.
The Military Health System is optimized for treating relatively low patient loads with the benefit of U.S. air superiority enabling evacuation to the appropriate echelon of care. It is incentivized to focus on cost control in peacetime conditions rather than surge capacity for large-scale operations. As a result, it lacks the transport assets, facilities, staff, and information systems to support medical logistics during high-end, high tempo operations. And it lacks capacity to surge production for life-saving drugs and medical supplies that would be needed in an emergency.
DOD needs to address shortfalls in its medical industrial base. It needs to reconsider requirements for prepositioned medical stocks. And it needs to reevaluate medical logistics facilities and personnel in the Indo-Pacific to ensure an expeditionary care network is ready to provide high-quality care nearest to the point of injury with little warning.
1 “Report to President Donald J. Trump by the Interagency Task Force in Fulfillment of Executive Order 13806: Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” Department of Defense, September 2018. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Oct/05/2002048904/-1/-1/1/ASSESSING-AND-STRENGTHENING-THE-MANUFACTURING-AND-DEFENSE-INDUSTRIAL-BASE-AND-SUPPLY-CHAIN-RESILIENCY.PDF.
2 Ronald Reagan Institute, “The Contest for Innovation: Strengthening America’s National Security Innovation Base in an Era of Strategic Competition,” 3 December 2019. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/media/355297/the_contest_for_innovation_report.pdf
3 Raphael Cohen, “Ukraine and the New Two War Construct,” War on the Rocks, 5 January 2023. https://warontherocks.com/2023/01/ukraine-and-the-new-two-war-construct/.
4 Mark Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan, Washington, DC: CSIS, 2023.
5 Michael Hunzeker, “Taiwan’s Defense Plans are Going Off the Rails,” War on the Rocks, 18 November 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2021/11/taiwans-defense-plans-are-going-off-the-rails/.
6 Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, “Ten for Taiwan: Policy Recommendations to Preserve Peace and Stability in the Taiwan Strait,” U.S. House of Representatives, 24 May 2023. https://selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/sites/evo-subsites/selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/files/evo-media-document/ten-for-taiwan-final-with-cover-page-2.pdf.
7 Bradley Wilson, Ellen Pint, Elizabeth Roer, Emily Ellinger, Fabian Vallalobos, Mark Stalczynski, Jonathan Brosmeer, Annie Brothers, Elliott Grant, Characterizing the Uncrewed Systems Industrial Base. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2023. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1474-1.html.