The Biden administration is slow to recognize threats then prioritize limited resources to prevent conflict, or prevail should deterrence fail. This is the balancing act in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
President Joe Biden’s early equivocating on the heels of the embarrassing rout in Afghanistan did not deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading his neighbor. Then, as Russia’s assault unfolded, Biden’s sluggish response cost Ukraine dearly.
Now America is facing an even graver challenge than the major regional conflict in Europe at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s doorstep: deterring the People’s Republic of China from invading Taiwan and attacking America’s allies in the region—and, if deterrence fails, prevailing in what would be the most difficult war the United States has faced since 1941.
The problem is simple, but the solution involves making difficult decisions about how to employ limited assets. How much can we help Ukraine while preventing China’s leaders from believing they can prevail in a fight to conquer Taiwan?
This is further complicated by the fact that China would view anything short of a Russian defeat as a victory in its alliance with Russia. Some observers even see China as not at all caring if Russia were to lose its war against Ukraine, if China’s ability to take Taiwan was enhanced through America’s support of Ukraine—although China would likely not welcome instability on their long border with Russia, nor the resultant freeing of defense resources in the West that could be reallocated to focus on China. Also, there’s Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, much of which remains targeted at China.
An important element of that calculation involves our defense industrial base and the pace at which we can replenish vital military stockpiles. Falling short may embolden our potential foes while significantly increasing risk in the early stages of a conflict.
In World War I, all the major combatants seriously underestimated artillery consumption rates. By February 1915, only six months after the guns of August let loose with their bloody barrages across Europe, British artillery batteries in France were allocated one round per gun per day.
Weapons have since grown more complex. Where a typical artillery round 110 years ago would contain about a dozen parts, America’s Javelin antitank missile, made famous by Ukraine’s highly effective use of some 8,500 missiles and reusable launchers, contains thousands of circuits, optics, and explosives at the cost of $197,884 per missile and $241,803 per launcher.
Since the Javelin missile became operational in 1996, the United States has produced more than 50,000 of them and more than 12,000 reusable Command Launch Units—just under 2,000 missiles and 500 launchers per year. But America has sent more than four years’ worth of Javelin production to support Ukraine’s defense against Russia. In response, the Pentagon placed new orders for the missile, boosting production from 2,100 missiles per year to approximately 4,000. At this rate, it will take more than two years to replenish our war stocks of Javelin missiles.
Many other weapons systems are more relevant to a fight in the Pacific: anti-ship missiles, highly capable and costly shipboard surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes, and other munitions that, in a fight against China, would be used in vast numbers—numbers far exceeding anything planners became accustomed to in two decades of the War on Terror. This is likely a problem.
In 1987, I was a young Reagan appointee in the Department of Defense. I participated in three wargames during my time in the Pentagon. One was a defense industrial base mobilization exercise.
The scenario’s premise was that the Soviet Union was preparing to invade the Middle East to seize the oil fields in about six months. The exercise’s focus was on how America would prepare its defense industries to ramp up production of complex weapons like antiaircraft and antitank missiles that would be used in large quantities in a war with the Soviets.
When participants got around to discussing costs, they simply assumed Congress would give them what they needed. I pointed out we couldn’t plan on Congress providing unquestioned support and recommended we brief key members of Congress such as Democratic Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (and later secretary of defense under Bill Clinton); Republican Sen. Dan Quayle (later vice president under George H.W. Bush); and others.
To get the funding needed to surge production, members of Congress demanded a reduction in research and development spending in exchange—should war break out, it was reasoned, R&D funding could be restored. Today, to pay for ramping up production lines, Congress might suggest trimming areas of defense spending less directly relevant to deterring China, such as the U.S. Army’s $177 billion budget with its 12 active-duty divisions and costly top-heavy command structure.
It’s doubtful that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the “end of history” in December 1991, major defense industrial base mobilization wargames received the same priority as they had a few years before. I asked former Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, a veteran of 12 years of post-Cold War service on the House Armed Services Committee, if the Pentagon had ever invited him to participate in such an exercise. They hadn’t.
We’ve likely lost significant institutional memory on how to marshal the massive resources needed to deter a conflict or achieve victory if a war was forced upon us. With the strain of supplying Ukraine with weapons and China’s mounting belligerence, it would be prudent to conduct a defense industrial base mobilization exercise and include Congress. America must seriously prepare to face gathering dangers not seen in 80 years.