Commentary: Pandemic Lays Bare Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

By Dr. Peter Emanuel

iStock photo

Eighty years ago, America was the arsenal of democracy whose production and supply helped beat back fascism in Europe.

Today, commerce has evolved into an international patchwork of supply and demand that connects the United States to every corner of the Earth. The last decades have seen corporations embrace the tenets of Lean Six Sigma improvement methods, and the benefits of just-in-time manufacturing. In normal times, just-in-time manufacturing allows a well-planned logistical network to deliver products to the right place at the right time, minimizing inventory stockpiles in warehouses around the globe.

But these are not normal times, and the COVID-19 pandemic has frozen the supply lines necessary to feed global corporations. The worldwide embrace of social distancing policies has laid bare the fragility of our supply chains and made clear how vulnerable the U.S. defense industry is in its ability to sustain production of national security materials. Within weeks of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic, standing domestic inventories of textiles and chemicals were approaching depletion, forcing defense leaders to make operational response decisions based on availability of supply rather than best tactical characteristics.

National policies have long recognized that an infectious pandemic will not recognize borders drawn on a map and that it will spread and wreak havoc blind to the boundaries of sovereign nations. The novel coronavirus did exactly what was predicted. Jumping from animals, it spread quickly driven by global commerce and fanned by international flights.

In response worldwide leaders authorized carefully built response plans enacting social distancing and quarantine. What was not widely recognized in the decades of preparation was the social and economic impact of the pandemic response policies built by governments around the world. The calculus behind social distancing policies is based on infection models that seek to flatten the curve of infection through societal isolation.

In a previous job, I served as the assistant director for chemical and biological defense in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President from 2007-2010.

Having been part of the early planning meetings on these policies during the Bush and Obama administrations, I recall the first times these ideas were advocated. I failed to grasp the human aspect of what these policies would require and the impact of a nation on telework. Furthermore, I did not anticipate the ramifications of a country pivoting to online commerce and the impact of the global supply chain disruption on the ability to mobilize a pandemic response.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, U.S. defense leaders may be surprised that the supply vulnerability was not in bullets but rather in chemicals and textiles. The inevitable reevaluation of the fragile supply chains and their overreliance on foreign commodity suppliers will inevitably result in recommendations of stockpiling.

In some cases, strategic national stockpiles are appropriate, but it cannot be the only reaction to resolve supply chain vulnerability. The U.S. domestic supply infrastructure must be hardened but in such a way as to be sustainable and reflective of how industry will make things in the future — not how we made things in the past.

If the nation wants to develop its capacity to supply the defense industrial enterprise with chemicals and textiles, then it must begin to invest in biomanufacturing on U.S. soil.

Historically, petrochemical production has supplied the raw materials to fuel America’s production of everything from tanks to toothpaste. The maturation of biotechnology has increasingly led industry to embrace biomanufacturing as an alternative to the refining of oil to make commodity chemicals. Microbes grown in fermentation vats can be trained to produce commodity chemicals in much the same way that craft beer is brewed.

Biomanufacturing is attractive to industry because of the low capital expenditure to build a facility — sites can flexibly pivot to make multiple commodities — and new technologies, like synthetic biology, allow for the production of previously unattainable chemicals.

In contrast, petrochemical plants operate at high temperatures and pressures, consume vast amounts of energy, and generate toxic waste streams that limit the geographies willing to allow for construction of new production plants. Two-thirds of the world’s most used chemicals could be synthesized from renewable raw materials and, as nations adopt the Kyoto and Paris protocols, businesses are embracing the use of clean, green and sustainable avenues to produce chemicals. The U.S. defense industry should follow suit.

Prior to the pandemic, the Defense Department began taking steps to invest in biomanufacturing with its plan to launch a Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

These are promising steps that build on defense investments in synthetic biology but they pale in comparison to Chinese investments in biotechnology. China has explicitly stated its intention to dominate the global life sciences market and has been methodically investing worldwide to make this plan a reality.

Because domestic biomanufacturing facilities are nearing capacity, many firms are moving production overseas. U.S. leadership in biotechnology is eroding and a systematic plan to build capacity must be part of the national response to supply chain vulnerability.

Dr. Peter A. Emanuel is Army Futures Command’s senior research scientist for bioengineering located in Edgewood, Maryland, within the Chemical Biological Center. He advises Army leadership on emerging technologies in synthetic biology, biomanufacturing and bioengineering and exploitation of these new fields for applications that support national defense.

Topics: Defense Contracting

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.