Putin’s war sparked an urgent need to expand America’s military-industrial base
Senior Pentagon officials recently invited U.S. defense industry leaders to discuss the need for replenish inventory weapons that were sent to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. This and the growing threat from China are necessary to plan the production of arms and services by our military industry. But they are far from sufficient for the new era ushered in by Vladimir Putin’s war.
It is true that the supply of two particular weapon systems has so far reduced our stocks considerably. We sent Ukraine 33% of our javelins – a portable anti-tank missile – and around 25% of our Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Pentagon rightly said these needs to be replenished – or better yet, replaced by newer, more efficient models. And since there is no indication that the war will end anytime soon, we have to assume that resupply needs will continue and even increase.
The weapon combination will likely also change over time. Already, the Ukrainian President is Ask HIMRAS (rocket launchers), helicopters and drones. To use these weapons effectively, the Ukrainians will need training and sustainment assistance. The United States and/or NATO will need to quickly organize for this mission, perhaps by establishing a military assistance command to train and support Ukrainian forces. Such a measure will also facilitate the coordination of supply operations between allies.
But the message to our defense industrial complex must be to go beyond resupplying what we send to Ukraine. We are in an unhappy and austere world era after the Russian invasion. Unprovoked aggression represents a sea change in the international security environment. This shift requires a major expansion of our defense industrial base that addresses four pressing needs:
First, resupply your allies and partners. They too have expended large percentages of their own stockpiles of weapons and face the same urgent need to fill these readiness depots. The Russian invasion heightened Europeans’ awareness of their continent’s security environment and collective security. Surprisingly, Finland and Sweden are now inclined to join NATO, and many others – Germany in particular – are ready to spend a lot more on defense. It’s very positive. The drive to increase defense spending will also mean buying new, more powerful weapons to replace old and ineffective systems. Our defense industrial base must be prepared to help them achieve this important goal.
Second, the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine will cause those who rely on Russian systems, such as India, to reconsider these investments and their future purchases. Moreover, the G-7 sanctions against Russia will compromise its ability to supply weapons in the quantities planned by Moscow or to supply the necessary spare parts for the systems already supplied. This presents an opportunity to reduce Indian reliance on Russian weapons in key areas. India’s reliance on Russia for fighter jets, missiles and air defense systems precipitated its ambivalent response to Russia’s naked aggression. Reducing the dependence of key countries – especially India – on Russia should guide both our strategy and how we chart the course of our defense industry policy.
Third, the conflict has dramatically increased the importance of Saudi Arabia’s ability to increase oil production. The Biden administration has had frosty relations with Riyadh. Unlike the previous administration, the White House kept Riyadh at bay diplomatically and even refused or delayed the sale of several weapons systems. Now the administration is urgently trying to reset those relations. A key part of this reset will be increased arms sales to help Saudi Arabia deal with the threat from Iran and its proxies, particularly the Houthis, who have launched more than 800 attacks against Saudi Arabia, including some attacks on its major cities.
Fourth, this war has impacted geopolitical and security calculations beyond Europe. Indo-Pacific countries now face a potential conflict in their region involving China or North Korea that could start without notice. The result would be catastrophic. This highlights the urgent need to pre-position appropriate weapons in Taiwan for its defense in the event of Chinese aggression. Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s island layout makes resupply extremely complex once hostilities break out. The administration has been lukewarm in its attitude toward US arms sales to Taiwan. This must change. Providing naval helicopters to Taiwan would be an important first step.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine necessitates a significant change in the tone, tenor and pace of our foreign military sales. Ukraine demonstrates that our allies and partners need the military capability to defend against aggression at little or no notice. It would have a deterrent effect.
The U.S. military-industrial base is a critical instrument and bulwark against the multiple security threats facing us, our allies, and our partners. To continually rebuild and modernize the supply chain, we must stay at the forefront of innovation and redouble our commitment and investment in research and development.
The creation of new financing and contracting options, including public-private partnerships, will also support greater investment in the manufacturing facilities of our major producers. Increased production must be accompanied by a reduction in reliance on foreign suppliers, which, if left unaddressed, can be an unintended problem for the global supply chain in a crisis and significant and protracted regional conflict. These measures are fundamental elements in the preservation of our national security and our role as world leaders.
Expanding our defense industrial base must also include addressing critical capability shortages for the current security environment as soon as possible. For example, we have a review shortage of Patriot Missile defense systems, and Saudi Arabia’s security depends on this air defense cover. We have not yet supplied Riyadh with a Patriot battery since we have removed the one we supplied for servicing. As a result, the Houthis have grown bolder and our relationship with the kingdom has suffered. Iraqi Kurdistan is frequently bombed by Iran and its proxies as well; he too needs Patriot missiles, otherwise he will have no choice but to accommodate Iran.
Our military/industrial base must be revitalized and expanded in order to meet the geopolitical challenges we will face in the years and decades to come. This is an essential problem but one that can be overcome. Addressing this requires national commitment and resources, public-private partnership, and bold leadership from the White House, Pentagon, and Congress. We cannot afford not to take up this challenge.
Zalmay Khalilzad was the American ambassador to the United Nations. He was the head of policy planning at the Ministry of Defence.