Pentagon acquisition can no longer ignore the industrial base

The Defense Department plans to release the implementation plan for its National Defense Industrial Strategy in early fall. America’s adversaries may not wait that long.

Russia certainly isn’t waiting in Ukraine. Iran isn’t waiting in Israel. And from the Red Sea to the Taiwan Strait, America’s other adversaries aren’t likely to respect such a timeline.

While Israel’s Iron Dome defenses were successful in countering Tehran’s missiles, the episode shows the dangers inherent when a supply of weapons is limited. And make no mistake, that supply is limited.

Those in government now, whether civil service or political appointee, must understand that no acquisition decision should ever be made without considering the industrial base.

The bottom line is the industrial base cannot be considered in isolation. It needs to be a part of the holistic way DOD does acquisition.

The root of the problem is that acquisition program managers typically focus on three things: cost, schedule, and performance – commonly referred to as “the three-legged stool.” What’s taken for granted is the defense industrial base, from which these products, services, and assets flow. It is almost always assumed the DIB will be there to support whatever acquisition decision is made. Instead, the Defense Department needs a four-legged stool where that fourth leg is the defense-industrial base.

To illustrate — what if a service or program decides to procure fewer missiles or aircraft or ammunition than the previous year? What is the effect on the industrial base — especially on sub-tier suppliers? Do those quantities put them below the minimum sustaining rate they need to stay in business?

In the past several years, as the U.S. has attempted to simultaneously support two allies, Ukraine and Israel, while also preparing to support others in the Indo-Pacific region, it became obvious the Defense Department has paid a price for not considering and investing in the defense-industrial base. The cumulative effect is an industrial base that has atrophied and is unprepared to support a true crisis.

The challenge has been unprecedented. The U.S. has donated over 2 million rounds of 155mm ammunition to Ukraine and is struggling to replenish its inventory. After three years of intense, focused effort, production has only increased from 14,400 per month to 30,000 rounds, though it’s on its way to 100,000. All while Ukraine is shooting an average of 5,000 rounds per day and when DOD is now also supplying Israel.

The shortage of solid rocket motors has become a production bottleneck for multiple missile systems, such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System. There are only two suppliers, both are capacity constrained, and there are multiple sub-tier suppliers who cannot keep up with the sudden increase in demand.

Obsolete parts have also been a major constraint when increasing production rates and another consequence of acquisition decisions that did not consider industrial base impacts. This limited production of Stinger and Patriot missiles.

The Defense Department plans to release the implementation plan for the NDIS sometime this fall. While the strategy includes a section on flexible acquisition that briefly touches on some of these themes, it clearly states it does not include broad-based acquisition reform. It must.

The industrial base cannot be considered in isolation. It needs to be a part of the holistic way DOD does acquisition. It must factor into every decision — not as an after-thought, but as the first thought. The time for the four-legged stool is now.

Christine Michienzi is a former senior defense official and the owner of MMR Defense Solutions as well as a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.