AS LONDON WAS being bombed during the Blitz, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a “fireside chat” over the radio on December 29th 1940 that still resonates today. America, the president said, had to become “the great arsenal of democracy”, both to help those fighting the Nazis and to protect itself. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor a year later, America’s factories went into full wartime production. The car industry in Detroit took up much of the burden: Oldsmobile made cannon shells, Cadillac produced tanks and howitzers, Chrysler made Browning machine-guns. Ford built a huge factory to roll out b-24 bombers at a rate of one an hour. One of its workers might have inspired the song and poster of “Rosie the Riveter”, now an iconic image.
Eight decades on, with war raging in Ukraine, President Joe Biden is casting himself as a latter-day Roosevelt. America will not fight directly but is determined to help Ukraine “win”. On April 28th he asked Congress for an extra $33bn to respond to the Ukraine crisis, on top of $13.6bn approved earlier this year. The new request includes about $20bn in military assistance to Ukraine and European allies. “The cost of this fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen,” he declared.
Can America’s arms industry respond? It must help supply not only Ukraine but also European allies that are rushing to re-arm and America itself, which must replenish its stocks of precision weapons and worry about the risk of renewed great-power conflict. “One of the great success stories of this war is that we have been able to supply the Ukrainians with large numbers of munitions,” says Thomas Mahnken of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank in Washington. “My question is: who is going to supply the United States? Nobody.”
America has been by far Ukraine’s biggest armorer. Since 2018 it has sold or donated 7,000-odd Javelin anti-tank missiles. America has sent 14,000 other anti-armor systems, 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 700 Switchblade loitering munitions, 90 howitzers with 183,000 155mm shells, 16 Mi-17 helicopters, 200 armored personnel carriers and more. And it has marshalled allies to provide military equipment, often of ex-Soviet vintage.
Most of these weapons have come from stockpiles. Factories may not be able to raise production quickly. Take the Javelin. America does not release details of its stock of weapons. But according to budget documents, its army has bought around 34,500 Javelins since they went into service in 1996. Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another think-tank, reckons that it has used between 12,500 and 17,500 for training and testing . That would leave 17,000-22,000 in stock at the end of 2021. So the 7,000 Javelins given to Ukraine might account for a third or more of the army’s stock. (His calculation from him excludes about 2,400 Javelins bought by the marines, and perhaps 5,000 expended in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
On May 3rd Mr Biden will visit the factory in Troy, Alabama, where the Javelins are assembled. It produces 2,100 of them a year. It would thus take three or four years to replenish the army—more if orders from other countries take priority. The factory could in theory ramp up to 6,480 Javelins a year. But this assumes that its makers, a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, receive firm orders, can find the extra workers and, crucially, components. On earnings calls with investors last month the bosses of both firms spoke of supply-chain constraints.
The production of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles is tighter still. They entered service in 1981, and America bought its last batch in 2003. The American production line closed last year, but reopened for a foreign customer (thought to be Taiwan). Its maker, Raytheon, says it has only a limited stock of parts. “Some of the components are no longer commercially available,” Raytheon’s boss, Gregory Hayes, told investors. “And so we’re going to have to go out and redesign some of the electronics in the missile seeker head, and that’s going to take us a little bit of time.”
The recent move to send Ukraine NATO-standard artillery may relieve pressure on ammunition stocks (countries have lots of 155mm shells). But other pinch-points will appear. Germany, for instance, said it could not supply main battle tanks because it would be left short. Having long dominated the airspace of war zones, Western countries have underinvested in longer-range ground-to-air weapons of the kind Ukraine is pleading for.
This is not the first time they find themselves short of weapons. In the air war in Libya in 2011—a limited campaign—Britain and France quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions (PGMs). America itself, at some points during the campaign against the jihadists of Islamist State in Iraq and Syria in 2014-18, was consuming more PGMs than could be produced.
Precision weapons, packed with chips and sensors, are hard and expensive to make. Planners tend to focus on “platforms”—tanks, ships, planes—and save money on the bombs and missiles, notes Bradley Martin of the RAND Corporation, a think-tank supported by the American air force. “A risk is being assumed based on a belief that, if a war were to occur, we would be able to ramp up production,” says Mr Martin. “That’s a bad assumption.”
A related problem is a tendency to underestimate how intensely armies use ammunition when they are at war. A third is that, after decades of peacetime procurement, industry has given priority to efficiency, not resilience. Maintaining spare capacity is expensive.
It does not help that the defense industry, like others, has been hit by the covid pandemic, tight labor markets and global shortages of computer chips. A recent report by the National Defense Industrial Association, an industry group, argues that America’s defense-industrial base is deteriorating. The biggest problems were a shortage of skilled workers and spare parts. About 30% of firms it questioned said they were the sole supplier of a particular product to the Pentagon.
Kathleen Hicks, deputy defense secretary, says the Pentagon is trying to clear bottlenecks at weekly meetings with the bosses of defense firms. It is helping them locate alternative suppliers for hard-to-find parts or, in the case of the Stinger, the tools with which to make them. In the longer term the government is trying to boost domestic semiconductor production.
Ms Hicks warns against fixing on particular weapons. “We talk in name-brands. People walk around the street talking about Javelin, but the reality is that we’re providing our anti-tank systems,” she notes. What Ukraine needs is not a particular weapon, but a capability, eg, to stop armored vehicles. That might be provided by other weapons or allies (Britain and Sweden, say, which have sent their jointly produced Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon). And America, she says, is able to draw down stocks of Javelins and Stingers because it has other means with which to destroy tanks and plans.
Ideas for improving defense production abound. Bigger stockpiles, diversifying suppliers, modular weapons designs that allow components to be swapped, common standards among allies and joint acquisition. But much of this is hard given that procurement is slow and national industries tend to be protected. Ms Hicks says the Pentagon must give industry “a strong, enduring market signal”, an assurance that if they hire workers and expand factories “the work is going to be there”.
For America, the war in Ukraine is still a limited commitment. But if its industry is straining to meet current demand, could it cope with a big war—say against China over Taiwan? “In World War II, one reason industry could rapidly make the shift was because we had a massive amount of unused industrial capacity after the Depression,” says Mr Martin. “Right now the arsenal of democracy is not capable of responding to the demand of long-term high-intensity conflict.”
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis