‘We haven’t got this figured out just yet’: Pentagon, industry struggle to arm Ukraine

LIBKOS/AP Photo

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — A section of the Berlin Wall stands prominently on the grounds of the library and museum dedicated to the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the role he played in the demise of the Soviet Union.

But this weekend, as the nation’s defense leaders gathered for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, there was a palpable feeling that the bad old days are here again — and America and its European allies are still not fully up to the challenge.

China is still widely considered the biggest long-term threat, as military leaders, members of Congress and defense company CEOs told the bipartisan gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. Yet it was eclipsed by the need to kick into much higher gear to tackle a problem that many here didn’t imagine just a year ago: a hot proxy war with Russia in Ukraine that has sent the Pentagon and the defense industry scrambling.

“High-end conflict consumes a lot of munitions and a lot of weaponry,” Mike McCord, the Pentagon’s top budget official, said in an interview. “We are also looking at the supply chain limitations. We haven’t got this figured out just yet.”

Top Pentagon and industry officials maintain that efforts are finally ramping up to replace the weapons that the United States and its allies have shipped to Ukraine — depleting stockpiles that are deemed crucial to deterring China or other potential adversaries for years to come.

“There's a lot of urgency,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters. “Congress is sending billions of dollars to the Department of Defense, and we are turning that around and getting that on contract — I would say two to three times faster than we normally do.”

She cited recent deals for tens of thousands of 155mm artillery rounds that the Ukrainians are using up almost as soon as they arrive. By the spring, “we will be able to do 20,000 rounds a month,” she said.

But it will take time to manufacture enough of them, she said, adding that the U.S. will get that rate up to 40,000 rounds a month in the spring of 2025.

Indeed, reigniting plants that make artillery, rockets, missiles and air defenses that were tailored for peacetime efficiency — rather than war-time production — is proving a massive task.

“We spend a lot of money on some very exquisite large systems and we do not spend as much on the munitions necessary to support those,” Gregory Hayes, the CEO of Raytheon Technologies, said during a panel discussion. “We have not had a priority on fulfilling the war reserves that we need to fight a long-term battle.”

The Army’s top weapons buyer also cautioned that responding to a “real large-scale war” won’t happen overnight.

“People haven't seen one in a while,” Doug Bush said in an interview, “so I think we've forgotten that with true industrial mobilization, there's always a time aspect to it and it's never instantaneous.”

“I think we're closer to a wartime mode, which has been something I've been working on to build,” he added.

The Pentagon is trying to overcome the limitations as officials craft next year’s budget request, McCord said.

For example, he is talking to congressional defense committees about buying munitions for the first time using multiyear contracts — a vehicle DoD uses for aircraft and ship programs to save money and ensure a steady flow of production.

Officials are also considering creating a fund for the Pentagon to buy versions of weapons that can be quickly transferred or sold to partners — Taiwan, for example — if a conflict emerges.

McCord explained that the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have highlighted that “having the ‘just what you need, just in time’ mentality is maybe not the answer.”

So far, lawmakers are skeptical of providing the Pentagon a blank check, McCord added. But he hopes they can work out an agreement. At the forum, lawmakers from both parties were adamant that the funding needs to continue in the next Congress, even as some conservative members balked at the price tag.

Any new pot of money dedicated to munitions production would need to be at least $100 million to be effective, but the amount also has to match the actual industrial base capability, McCord added.

“What is doable in the next 12 months with the industrial base workforce and supply chain as it exists today?” he asked.

He also said the Biden administration's pending request for $38 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine should help. “The supplemental that we have pending now has some explicit funding in it for industrial base capacity expansion.”

Still, others said that the contracting process is just too slow and not robust enough to get the industry firing at the level it needs to be.

“In order to develop all these munitions we need, we have to get production contracts out there,” said Ellen Lord, a former Pentagon’s weapons chief and CEO of Textron Systems.

She derided what she called “lumpy contracts” in favor of longer term ones to compel companies to make the investments needed to ramp up production.

Lord also said the U.S. needs to make it easier for allied nations to build American weapons by sharing the engineering specs.

“We need to think about our very close allies and partners … and break down the barriers in terms of these technical data packages to allow Australia and Canada and the UK if they want to, to begin to produce,” she told reporters. “We don’t have the goods because we are not manufacturing.”

But it is all going to take a lot more time and significantly more money.

“The thing that gives me most pause if I watch what’s happening right now with depletion of armaments is that the U.S. industrial base couldn’t just spin up and do massive World War II-type production or even for a regional conflict the way people probably presume,” said Dan Jablonsky, the CEO of Maxar, the commercial satellite imagery company that has played a major role in giving the world a view of the Ukraine conflict.

“We can do those things, but we can't do them at a massive scale like we used to do,” he added in an interview. “It is not geared that way.”

Lawmakers are also concerned about how much more appetite the American public has given the ever-ballooning price tag.

“I think we all have been so impressed by the Ukrainians and you’ve got to back them as much as possible,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former DoD and CIA official. “But I knocked on 80,000 doors and Ukraine came up in my election in Central Michigan. People are like, ‘I really support them and I want them to succeed, but when do we stop giving billions of dollars and is there an endgame?’

“So I think elected officials have to be able to articulate what the plan is here,” she added in an interview. “And there’s certainly a contingent on both the right and the left who are ready to be done with Ukraine in Congress.”

For veterans of Reagan’s administration who attended the forum, all the talk about having to outlast the Russians was more than a bit surreal. “Nobody thought this would happen again,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as a senior defense policy official for Reagan and as the top budget official under President George W. Bush. “We almost brought Russia into NATO.”

Connor O’Brien, Lee Hudson and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.