Since COVID began, global supply is newsworthy. “Supply Chain Resilience” is a buzzword, and COVID, Suez Canal closure and other supply chain disruptions continue. It is one of President Biden’s biggest challenges. If current supply issues are not resolved soon, the potential for mass layoffs is real.
Most of America’s fragile supply chain centers at the Port of Los Angeles and its worrisome impact on upcoming holidays. Lost has been troublesome news regarding our military’s critical supply chain, and its inability to keep fighter jets, bombers and refueling tankers afloat. The sprawling network of private contractors that manufacture critical replacement parts is known as the defense industrial base. Recent reports paint a worrisome picture of the defense industrial base’s rapidly declining ability to support our military.
To state America’s defense industrial base is weak is not a provocative remark. The reality is well documented at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. For decades, policy makers and defense leaders have actively sought solutions. The Department of Defense provides a report to Congress titled “Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress” annually. President Trump issued an executive order to examine defense industrial base issues in 2017, and President Biden issued a similar one this year. However, despite best intentions, the health of the defense industrial base continues to erode.
To highlight the severity, October 2021 is key. Within days, headlines arose. First, an article titled, “F135 Depot Rebounds, But F-35 Engine Shortage Worsens”. This followed the release of a DOD IG audit that, among other shortcomings, found a shortage of F-15 and F-16 engines. The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command published a request for information to the industry to determine how bad our tanker shortage is following a report on Boeing’s inability to deliver the new KC-46. These are just three headlines in less than a week.
Few citizens realize how dependent our nation’s ability to defend itself is on small and medium sized manufacturers that struggle to stay afloat. When it comes to defense equipment, we think of massive prime contractors building jets and ships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. What we don’t realize is for every new fighter jet that takes to the sky, there is an older bomber or refueling tanker struggling to get off the ground. In many cases, there is no longer anyone making the parts necessary to keep the venerable B-52 in service or the trusty KC-135 refueling tanker. Even instances where there is a small company making the part, there is rarely a second option.
Pentagon, White House and Congressional leaders are laser-focused on addressing our nation’s critical supply chain. The House Armed Services Committee created a “Defense Critical Supply Chain Task Force”. Elements of the FY22 NDAA seek to tackle some of the challenges. National and state organizations such as the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and the Oklahoma Defense Industrial Association (ODIA) actively push the issue. However, many of the findings, recommendations and actions are incremental and will not materially improve the underlying factors.
Until sweeping changes occur, and advanced technologies are deployed, there must be unwavering focus by military and elected officials. Moreover, there must be unflinching support from our policy makers to see these efforts through. Until then, our defense industrial base will remain fragile, and our country’s military vulnerable.