WASHINGTON — With the Kremlin doubling down on plans to build 1.5 million-man military by 2026, it’s clear that “Russia is not done” as a threat, warned the US Army Chief of Staff today. So, Gen. James McConville said, the US and its European allies must invest in their defense industries for the long term.
That means more than just scaling up production of key munitions such as guided missiles and 155 mm howitzer shells, McConville made clear this morning. After decades of mergers, offshoring, and efficiencies, the West must also build assured supplies of key components, rather than fragile supply chains with single points of failure.
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“Everyone is taking a look at supply chains, [but] I don’t even like the word ‘chain,’” McConville said at the Association of the US Army in Arlington, Va., just 10 minutes from the Pentagon. “We say ‘supply chain,’ or we say ‘kill chain’; I like ‘networks’ and ‘fabrics’ as a different way of thinking about it. And what I mean by that is [with] chains, you’re only as good as the weakest link.”
Yes, US defense industry is arguably “the most sophisticated” in the world, McConville told an audience of contractors, officers, reporters and others at AUSA. But even here, companies often import vital components, depend on a single subcontractor for a vital part, or both.
“If we don’t make it here, then you may not be able to make that system. We found that out with masks for COVID,” he said. “[So] we all need to take a hard look at how we do business, [and] we may need to do things differently in the future.”
For instance, when stockpiles of some munition or weapons system run low and word comes back that it will take, say, two years to build more, that rarely means it’ll take two years to build anything. Often, it’s a few critical and time-consuming “long-lead components” that are the holdup, while the rest of the weapon can be manufactured much more quickly.
So, McConville said, armed with that knowledge, why not start buying that relatively inexpensive handful of long-lead items well ahead of time — even when there’s no definite need to ramp up production in the near term — and put them “on the shelf” as “insurance” against future surges in demand? That way, when a crisis hits, you don’t have to wait years for the key components and can pull together the rest of the weapon in months or weeks.
Overall, he said, the solution is often found moving beyond traditional, industrial-age, “linear” approaches — chains — to innovative, information-age networks and fabrics.
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This will take government funding, not just exhortations to industry to plan ahead.
“Industry is going to invest in areas that they think there’s going to be return on investment. So [for] many of these systems, [there] is going to have to be a long range investment,” he said. “If they see resources being put in, investments being made, contracts being signed, they’re going to get after that.”
Government investment to prime the pump for industry investment is especially important in Europe, whose defense budgets have never recovered from the post-Cold War cuts, in contrast to the US. “Many of those countries are going to want to invest in their organic industrial base, [but] in some of those countries, they’re a lot further behind, because they just haven’t done it for 10 to 15 years,” McConville said. “If you’re sitting in Europe… you’re going have to invest in your defense, you’re gonna have to buy insurance, and then you’re going to have to, for industry, show them that you’re willing to pay for those systems and get things on contracts… long-term contracts.”
Long-term is key. “We plan for the worst,” McConville said. “Russia is not done, they say they’re not: They’re going to build their army, and when they say 1.5 million [troops], they’re talking 2026. This thing is not over for the next couple of years.”