4 min read
A Protracted War Billed On a Short Timeline: A Challenge for the U.S. Military Industrial Base

Henry Choisser

The Kremlin has increasingly shifted its rhetoric, strategy, and policies toward a protracted war in Ukraine - all the while, continuing to frame conflict as having a short horizon. The recent withdrawal from the New START arms limitations treaty, the neutering of Wagner mercenary group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, the FSB’s (Russian security services) infiltration of the defense industrial base, and this week’s arrest of an American reporter from the Wall Street Journal (the first such case since the Cold War) are just a handful of examples that illustrate Moscow’s changing approach to the conflict. As such, the West needs to send more munitions and more capable weapons systems to Ukraine. The weapons should be given because they will help the Ukrainians achieve victory, but also as a demonstration of our prolonged willingness to support Ukraine’s independence. Concerns over the cost, squeamishness over escalation, and inquisitions over their deployment will merely embolden China to refill the shrinking stockpiles of the Russian Armed Forces. 

More comprehensive military aid packages, and delivery of more status-quo-changing items like modern tanks and warplanes are necessary to deter Chinese arms and ammunition sales to Russia as they face shortages that prevent sustained offensives and prepare for a protracted war. Small scale shipments of body armor and munitions have already been recorded, and as Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., put it “[China] can make it rain better than we can tread water in Ukraine.” Alluding to the disproportionate military manufacturing infrastructure between China and the United States - one that is not currently in our favor. 

The United States should continue to expend resources on the Ukraine war as it degrades the Russian armed forces at a rate exponentially greater than the upfront cost to the United States. Additionally, it’s rather surprising that many members of the Freedom Caucus are skeptical of further Ukraine funding given that a significant amount of infrastructure, jobs, and economic investments related to the military industrial complex are located within their states. This map of the economic impact of the F-35 Lightning program illustrates how widespread many of these investments are. Fortunately, language in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes an increase in the acquisition of new munitions, for example, including with multiyear buying authorities. 

Moreover, an increase in multiyear contracts with defense contractors to help refill our depleting arsenal will not only pay for itself in terms of damage inflicted to the Russian armed forces, but create a more robust military industrial base in preparation for (and as deterrence against) the next major great power conflict that is brewing between the U.S. and China. History is not in our favor in terms of averting a military confrontation between the rising and existing hegemonic powers of the international political ecosystem. However, that fate is not written in stone, despite some military analysts putting a possible invasion of Taiwan within a 6-year timeframe. Expert diplomacy, and enduring resolve will be critical in preventing the culmination of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream - which requires the complete reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. 

However, years of underinvestment have left the U.S. industrial base incapable of both refilling and increasing stocks while meeting demands from allies in a relevant timeframe. Additionally, the commercial side of the defense industrial base has an incentive structure that motivates a lowest cost model at the expense of capacity and speed. While this incentive structure is designed to ensure that the Department of Defense can invest a broad range of capabilities and to carefully allocate taxpayer funds, it has also reduced the ability of the defense industrial base to surge. A weakness that is surely being noticed by Chinese military analysts. 

For example, the iconic Javelin relies on a specific rocket motor - the Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced solid-propellant rocket motor - without a second source at the moment. There is one company (Williams International) that builds turbofan engines for most of our cruise missiles, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, and Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile. There is one company that produces the energetics for most missiles, and there is also one foundry that can produce the large titanium castings for some important weapons systems. These problems are particularly concerning considering that China has been acquiring high-end weapons systems and equipment at a rate five to six times faster than the United States, according to some U.S. government estimates. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala) noted at an Armed Services Committee hearing in February that “oversight is about more than just accounting,” continuing his push to convince the Biden administration to send Ukraine more advanced weaponry such as long-range missiles. “It’s about ensuring the administration is setting strategic goals and implementing a policy to achieve them,” said Rogers. “This is where I have very real concerns. Since the beginning, the President has been overly worried that giving Ukraine what it needs to win would be too escalatory.” 

Last year Congress provided the Defense Department with $61.4 billion in emergency military aid for Ukraine over four supplemental spending packages. The last package – attached to the government funding bill Congress passed in December – included $27.9 billion in additional Ukraine military aid, which the Biden administration hopes will last through the end of the fiscal year in September. 

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander stated in February’s hearings that “we’ll need to be thinking about these longer-term investments in a modern Ukrainian military.” Moreover, she warned that Moscow would use any potential ceasefire to prepare for another invasion attempt. “I know it’s not the answer everyone wants to hear,” she added. “We’d like to think the Russian leadership will wake up and go home and leave Ukraine alone, but the indications are quite the opposite.” As the war rages into its second year, ammunition has started to run low on both sides and rearmament from China could give Russia a decisive edge over the long haul. The U.S. must be prepared to continue and even increase its aid to Ukraine or risk allowing Russia to gain the upper hand. Moreover investments now will pay dividends before, rather than after, a possible conflict with China in the Pacific theater.

* The email will not be published on the website.