How to ensure the US and its allies have the weapons they need

Given the strong Allied military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, one of the most debated topics on both sides of the Atlantic is whether there is sufficient defense industrial capacity between North America and Europe to meet the current and future needs of NATO and the United States of their armed forces in terms of defense capabilities to cover member states.

Put simply, that’s the wrong way to look at the situation. Prioritization, not capacity, is the real issue facing allies as they continue to supply Ukraine but also work to ensure NATO members have sufficient defense supplies to meet future needs. This is a real opportunity for both the United States and its NATO allies to build enduring transatlantic industrial resilience for the future.

NATO arms directors are meeting this week to address these very questions. The indictment is being led by Bill LaPlante, the US Undersecretary of Procurement and Conservation. The agenda will focus on what Ukraine’s allies need to give to continue defending itself and what types of weapons and technology the allies need for their own armed forces. Ensuring that Ukraine, as well as all NATO members, have the equipment and materiel they need is at the core of NATO’s self-defense and Article V Collective Defense Commitment.

Defense industry base capacity is a problem that will not go away. While COVID-19, inflation and the invasion of Russia have exacerbated industrial base problems, the reality is that supply chain and manufacturing challenges have existed for at least a decade due to government takeover policies, including programming and budgeting programs with limited ability to scale up production to extend or expand ; unnecessary congressional budgeting practices such as sequestration; parliamentary resistance to investment in needed skills, as seen in Europe over the past two decades; and highly bureaucratic arms export policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

This week’s meetings are a critical opportunity for allied governments and industry to begin making the necessary policy, regulatory and mental adjustments needed to prioritize defense production where it matters most. Three themes are central to these upcoming NATO meetings.

First, it must be recognized that there is capacity across the transatlantic space, but that some of the items currently required for Ukraine are struggling with obsolescence issues. Javelins and Stingers, for example, are no longer manufactured in significant quantities for the US or Allied forces, and ramping up production lines is difficult.

At the recent Defense News Conference, LaPlante said DoD must invest in the supply chain to meet today’s needs and ensure resilience for future needs. Not only more investment funds are decisive here, but also the predictability, stability and durability of demand. The Department of Defense’s recent signaling that it is open to a multi-year procurement of ammunition will be extremely helpful in this regard.

Second, the war in Ukraine has shown that the US needs to change its foreign military sales processes in order to be able to manufacture and export quickly. The biggest complaint from the industry and its allies about the FMS system is that it’s slow, opaque, and unpredictable. That needs to change.

As we have seen since the outbreak of war against Ukraine, the US and its allies’ governments can move at the “speed of necessity” to provide materiel and weapons. However, as numerous DoD officials noted, the answer was to put the problems on more people and work longer hours; No systemic fixes were made for future needs. Leaders must seek flexibility within existing laws—and be prepared to use that flexibility—to meet future demands.

Third, it builds industry resilience ahead of a crisis. Developing a ‘Build Allied’ approach – co-manufacturing, licensed manufacturing and other flexibility options – will increase resilience and benefit both sides of the Atlantic in terms of increased jobs, industrial production, trade and interoperability. It will also allow for more hot production lines in times of crisis.

By prioritizing actions like these, U.S. and allied leaders will maintain the industrial base capacity needed to ensure weapons availability for combat today and tomorrow. While the specific requirements of future conflicts are unknown, now is the time to build resilience to existing and future defense programs and for the State and Defense Departments to explore how FMS transactions can be more quickly routed to trusted allies. It is crucial for our common future.

Daniel Fata is a Nonresident Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy during the administration of President George W. Bush. Jerry McGinn is Executive Director of the Center for Government Contracting in the George Mason University School of Business. He is a former senior procurement official at the US Department of Defense.

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