US defense industry unprepared for a China fight, says report

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. defense-industrial base is not ready for a battle over Taiwan, as it would run out of key long-range, precision-guided munitions in less than one week, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. military aid to Ukraine has helped prevent a Russian victory against the neighboring nation, but that assistance has depleted Pentagon stockpiles and shown that the American defense industry cannot surge for a major war, the think tank found.

“As the war in Ukraine illustrates, a war between major powers is likely to be a protracted, industrial-style conflict that needs a robust defense industry able to produce enough munitions and other weapons systems for a protracted war if deterrence fails,” wrote Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the international security program at CSIS.

“Given the lead time for industrial production, it would likely be too late for the defense industry to ramp up production if a war were to occur without major changes.”

The report, which spotlights U.S. military aid to Ukraine and criticizes bureaucratic hurdles for defense contracting and U.S. arms sales overseas, recommends Washington reexamine its munitions needs and deepen its supplies, and that it remove regulatory hurdles to manufacturing with and exporting to allies.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the CSIS study.

The vast number of weapons the U.S. is sending to Ukraine highlights how difficult it would be to replenish them. For example, the U.S. has committed more than 160 M777 155mm howitzers to Ukraine, leaving its inventory “low.” Manufacturer BAE Systems would need at least 150 orders over several years to justify restarting production lines.

U.S. military stocks of Javelin anti-tank weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, counter-artillery radars and 155mm artillery shells are all considered low by the study.

Stocks of the Harpoon coastal defense system, a key capability for Taiwan, are considered medium, though current U.S. inventories might not be sufficient for wartime, Jones wrote.

Army officials, cognizant of the demand, said last month they are investing in a “dramatic” ramp-up in monthly production of 155mm shells over the next three years ― and they’ve awarded contracts for that to General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, American Ordnance, and IMT Defense.

Still, top Army officer Gen. James McConville told reporters this month that the service could consider buying in advance the parts of weapons that take the longest to build, so that they’re available in the event of a war.

“We have to start to think about, you know, how do you in a nonlinear way, buy insurance so when something happens, when you have the money, you can reduce the amount of time to stand up your organic industrial base,” McConville said.

Along these lines, the CSIS report recommends the U.S. create a strategic munitions reserve. The government, under the authorities in the Defense Production Act, would buy one or two lots of long-lead subcomponents — such as metals, energetics and electronics — for critical munitions to reduce the 12-24 months of lead time in times of crisis.

‘Too sluggish’

One of the most important munitions to prevent a Chinese seizure of all of Taiwan are long-range precision missiles, including those launched by U.S. submarines.

China considers Taiwan a rogue province, and has threatened to take back the island by force. In a conflict over Taiwan, the U.S. would depend on Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles to strike China’s naval force outside the range of its air defenses.

While it takes Lockheed Martin two years to make LRASMs, the think tank projects a Taiwan conflict would drain U.S. military supplies within a week.

A Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile launches from a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer during flight testing. (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
A Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile launches from a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer during flight testing. (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

Likewise, in a war against a major power the U.S. military would expend hundreds of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and extended-range versions each day, emptying its inventories in just over a week.

The military would also expend large quantities of ship-based munitions, such as the Standard Missile 6.

Several munitions considered critical in a Taiwan scenario ― Tomahawk missiles, Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles ― take more than 20 months to produce, calling into question the ability to replace them during a war.

Spending for naval munitions stockpiles to boost readiness is a priority for the U.S. Navy’s top officer. Adm. Mike Gilday’s list of unfunded priorities for this year sought $33 million to buy 11 more LRASMs, and he’s seeking to maximize the production of key weapons, including the Maritime Strike Tomahawk and the SM-6.

“Not only am I trying to fill magazines with weapons, but I’m trying to put U.S. production lines at their maximum level right now and to try and maintain that set of headlights in subsequent budgets so that we continue to produce those weapons,” Gilday told Defense News earlier this month. “That’s one thing we’ve seen in Ukraine — that the expenditure of those high-end weapons in conflict could be higher than we estimated.”

According to the CSIS report, the Pentagon should examine its munition needs with an eye toward Europe and the Pacific, based on operational plans, wartime scenarios and analyses.

Furthermore, Congress could hold hearings into defense-industrial base capacity and find ways to streamline approval for the Pentagon’s requests to move money between accounts, the report added.

While foreign military sales can supplement U.S. government orders and establish predictable, efficient production rates for industry, the report called the FMS system “risk-averse, inefficient, and sluggish.”

In one case, a decision to sell a system to Taiwan through the Foreign Military Sales process — rather than as a direct commercial sale — added two years to a delivery date, on top of a two-year production timeline.

The report also criticizes the system for the transfers of sensitive technologies from the United States, which can take 12-18 months, even for close allies.

“In trying to prevent military technology from falling into the hands of adversaries, the United States has put in place a regulatory regime that is too sluggish to work with critical frontline countries,” Jones wrote in the report.

With reporting by Megan Eckstein and Jen Judson.