Servicemen of Ukrainian Military Forces move U.S.-made FIM-92 Stinger missiles and the other military assistance shipped from Lithuania to Boryspil Airport in Kyiv, on Feb. 13, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)
The United States is working to overhaul its acquisition of certain high-end munitions which experts fear would be depleted in the event of a war with China.
U.S. Army officials are in the process of ramping up production to overcome challenges associated with replenishing domestic stockpiles of munitions that were either sold to Ukraine or which would be needed for a fight in the Indo-Pacific, according to Assistant Secretary of the Army Douglas Bush.
“Starting early last summer… we went through a deliberate effort to start planning for the production ramp-ups that are now underway,” Bush said during a March 3 talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a security-focused think tank.
“We are creating this production capacity, trying to create options for future decisions in terms of how much we’ll need. But if we don’t do the production ramp-ups we won’t have those choices to make in the first place.”
Bush said that the Army is “now in execution mode,” ramping up production to refill quickly draining stockpiles, but that production timelines for many munitions were complicated by complex supply chains and security requirements.
Moreover, Bush said, it was impossible to tell just what the United States’ stockpile needs would be in the future due to the open-ended nature of the war in Ukraine, but stocking requirements would likely be higher due to heightened international tensions.
“The long-term challenge will be how much of that capacity can we sustain over time, post conflict,” Bush said.
“… We don’t know how long the conflict will last. We don’t know how low our stocks will be.”
To overcome the uncertainty and supply chain weaknesses, Bush said the United States was working closely with allies in Europe and elsewhere to create redundancies and increase production capacity.
“We have to have more than one source for these things and an allied source, that they sustain but we can draw on that’s just a total win-win,” Bush said.
“That’s all the democracies in the world working together to be a giant arsenal and not just us doing it.”
Still, Bush said, there were difficult problems that could not be overcome by simply expanding government production facilities.
The Army’s supply of precision munitions, also known as smart munitions, for example, are wholly produced by private companies that maintain their own supply chains.
“Our precision munitions production is all in the private sector,” Bush said.
As such, Bush said that the Army was working with the Biden administration to subsidize increases to private production, to increase production, which would otherwise be financed by the companies responsible for production.
US Could Run Out of Missiles in War with China
Scaling up the military’s production of munitions has become something of a hot-button issue over the last year, as the United States continues to sell vast quantities of its own stockpiles to Ukraine while also attempting to deter aggression from communist China in the East and South China Seas and Taiwan Strait.
A CSIS report released in January, for example, found that the United States would quickly run out of critical munitions during a war with China over the future of Taiwan, as “the U.S. defense industrial base lacks adequate surge capacity for a major war.”
While the United States has ample amounts of small arms ammunition, the report found, relatively low stockpiles and incredibly slow acquisition and manufacturing processes could see the nation run out of critical long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) in less than one week of war.
“The U.S. defense industrial base is not adequately prepared for the competitive security environment that now exists,” the report said.
“In a major regional conflict—such as a war with China in the Taiwan Strait—the U.S. use of munitions would likely exceed the current stockpiles of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), leading to a problem of ‘empty bins.’”
Bush acknowledged the difficulty of both surging the appropriate capacity of munitions and also positioning and using those munitions over the vast territory of the Pacific.
“The Pacific in particular is one of the most difficult logistical challenges in the world… for sustaining large-scale combat operations,” Bush said.
“The broader joint view is, of course, that a fight with China will be very much a precision munitions fight.”
Still, Bush expressed optimism that new efforts to increase military production capacity and to grow the private industry responsible for building smart munitions would prove up to the task of preparing the United States for a conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
“It is definitely a daunting challenge,” Bush said, “but… I think there’s a lot of good work going that direction.”
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