Military Must Factor in Industry's Surge Capacity

By John C. Johnson

The process repeats year after year: the military diligently analyzes possible conflict scenarios — from terrorist responses and regional threats to full-scale high-intensity military engagements. It postulates probability of occurrence and duration of force-on-force employments. It then determines to the highest degree of specificity possible the proper mix of aircraft, surface combatants, armored vehicles and uniformed personnel required to prevail in potential conflict.

From these conclusions, the armed services make recommendations to the administration. The military — those in line to respond to conflict — desire never to be short of the instruments of war.

However, the defense budget is a discretionary pool of money that varies with the geopolitical landscape and the administration’s domestic priorities. Political decisionmakers discount the probability of conflict occurring sufficiently enough to allow funds to be shifted away from defense budgets. They further justify reduced budgetary allocation by pointing to the sophistication of U.S. weapons systems, which many believe allows for a lesser standing inventory requirement.

This clash over how to prioritize force structure is repetitive and ongoing, but each year what fails to be considered in this computational process is industry’s role. Industry’s ability to “timely” replenish combat losses must be examined to determine the proper inventory level.

At the end of the Cold War, policymakers adopted the position that the armed forces would not be called upon for another protracted conflict but only for regional — high-intensity, short-duration — conflicts or terrorist response — low-intensity, longer-duration — engagements. Neither scenario required industry’s input in determining the appropriate force structure. Industry’s ability to replenish combat losses would not be a factor in the military’s ability to respond successfully to these potential threats.

But in the last decade or so, there has been a shift to more confrontational postures among superpowers — economically, politically and territorially — which raises the probability of a high-intensity, long-duration conflict.

Russian activity in Ukraine, the polar regions, the Baltic and Black Seas, and Russia’s incursions into NATO and U.S. airspace have significantly increased, causing many to question Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term objectives. Not idle, China executes hegemonic activities across the South Pacific, claiming territorial rights to shoals and uninhabited islands along major sea lanes and threatening incursions into Taiwanese airspace.

China is pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative wherein small nations that are unable to repay their debt forfeit their sovereignty and allow Chinese basing and port use. These geopolitics, coupled with cyber disruptions — which some consider an act of war — require the United States to have robust computational capability and software expertise. To respond to these threatening actions, we must reconsider the probability of a high-intensity, long-duration conflict sometime in our future.

Current force planning projects that the United States would be involved in one major conflict at a time. The Pentagon must instead consider and plan for two concurrent major conflicts. Although the consensus is that a superpower engagement is of low probability, many surmise the probability is higher today than it was a decade ago, prior to the many incursions mentioned above. Therefore, ignoring industry’s surge capacity is a fundamental flaw in force structure planning.

Yet decisionmakers seem unwilling to confront this problem or address it through the budgeting process and instead point elsewhere.

Those who favor a reduced military arsenal point to the Defense Production Act as the way we can quickly provide attrition fillers in wartime. Yes, the Defense Production Act does ensure defense resupply is prioritized, but there is a physical limitation to how fast industry can respond.

As a comparison, consider that in the recent pandemic, with its devastating global effects, the pharmaceutical industry — with unlimited financial support — still took a year to provide a viable vaccine. This response was for a single product in contrast to a multitude of surface combatants, fighter and bomber aircraft, vehicles and artillery that must be manufactured while at the same time massive amounts of munitions are resupplied.

Some highlight industry’s response during World War II as an example of how quickly industry can respond, but today’s situation is extremely different — the United States has few, if any, idle manufacturing facilities, and workforce employment is near capacity, contrary to the situation near the end of the Great Depression.

The defense community today has been reduced to a handful of Tier I companies that rely on a limited supply chain of subcontractors and suppliers of sophisticated and state-of-the-art components and subsystems. Manufacturing facilities and shipyards are fewer in number and running as efficiently as possible. There is truly little room to ramp up quickly to a wartime footing. In addition, the availability of raw resources, components and subsystems is a hard point with time elements that cannot be significantly altered.

The defense industry operates as a profit-and-loss business; therefore, eliminating excesses is only logical to stay competitive. This business reality adversely affects industry’s ability to ramp up to replenish wartime losses. The uniformed services recognize the possibility of elevated daily attrition rates in a high intensity, protracted war and know that industry cannot replenish quickly enough to affect the outcome, but the military does not have any knobs to turn or solutions to implement to improve this situation.

Industry, on the other hand, does not have the financial luxury to store idle manufacturing lines, modular assembly feeds, fixtures, tooling, test equipment, inspection stations, manufacturing controls, and so forth. Current manufacturing readiness assessments determine maturity, risks and shortfalls to producibility before contractual obligations, but do not assess surge capability. The September 2018 report to former President Donald Trump, “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” demonstrates an excellent understanding of what must be accomplished to stabilize the industrial community, especially after sequestration; however, this, too, does not address surge capability in times of a high intensity, protracted conflict.

During the pandemic turbulence, the defense industry received more upfront contractual funding, which flowed down to subcontractors and suppliers to ensure supply chain health. This option could be continued, but it only touches on the larger issue.

Some believe the existing ships that sit idle in harbors and the aircraft that sit grounded in deserts could fill wartime losses in the near term. But a closer look reveals that these limited assets have been cannibalized to such an extent that the very industry with little surge capacity would have to put forth an enormous effort to make them operational. The Defense Department must look elsewhere for a solution and try not to minimize the problem.

Relying on allies and partners to supplement the reduced U.S. inventory is also an erroneous idea. Those nations possess generational systems that the U.S. military has already retired because of lack of parity with opponents’ equipment. If the operational capability of these systems is inadequate, how can such legacy systems under a different nation fill shortfalls? The logic is flawed.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, appointed officials coming forward with the new budget are attempting to justify the administration’s reduction to force structure. Their expressed rationale may provide some degree of comfort but does extraordinarily little to assure men and women on the battlefield that they will have a sustainable advantage for the duration.

Retiring 200 aircraft while adding 90 and inactivating 15 ships while asking for eight — only four are combatants — on the path to a 355-ship Navy is logic lost in a sea fog. Was it an error to set a 355-ship Navy? As the inventory is reduced, more pressure is exerted on fielded systems, thus aging scarce inventory more quickly and further exacerbating the situation.

With the increase in research, development, test and evaluation funding for systems a dozen years out, emphasis has shifted from strength in numbers to strength through technical advantage. But there is a point of diminishing returns when technology cannot halt a numerically superior opponent.

With U.S. inventory numbers in a downward spiral, we are not keeping pace with China or Russia. China and Russia are not retiring current-generation systems for the next generation’s promises. They recognize that, if you plan to secure your nation’s political and military objectives, there is a point when you cannot draw down force structure any further because industry is unable to replenish wartime losses quickly enough.

The solution to this conundrum lies not with industry but falls squarely on the shoulders of our elected officials and government.

However, government’s historical response to problems of such immense importance is to call for a study, which then wanders through several years of analysis and hundreds of pages of reporting only to conclude with a restatement of the problem that is already recognized, but with no tangible solution — an unacceptable path. Force structure is truly a national security issue. Steps must be taken today to mitigate the problem.

The uniformed services measure their operational readiness annually, and where they find shortfalls, they seek immediate solutions.

It is only logical to plan for extenuating circumstances. For example, the government realizes it may need to quickly expand the number of uniformed personnel; thus, registration for Selective Service is still a requirement. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, earmarked for emergency use, serves as another measure our nation can use to ramp up in time of need. But in planning force structure, no one has measured industry’s surge capacity.

The time is now to assess and qualify industry’s ability to fill inventory gaps and reconstitute force structure in wartime. Once the defense industry’s surge capability is clearly quantified, we can take measures to either shorten the response time or hold higher inventory levels. Whichever path is chosen, legacy systems must not be retired too quickly until an all-encompassing calculation is instigated. The question before us is: How do we improve industry’s readiness to surge?

The office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy functions under the following declaration: “Our mission is to ensure robust, secure, resilient and innovative industrial capabilities upon which the Department of Defense can rely in an era of great power competition to fulfill current and future warfighter requirements.”

The office’s partnership with the congressional Armed Services committees is essential in setting a course to resolve this shortfall in force structure planning. Furthermore, defense industry leaders are extremely astute. If asked, they will offer options for the government to consider.

The bottom line is that force structure planning must take into account industry.

Retired Air Force Col. John C. Johnson is a former vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman. He can be reached at

Topics: Defense Department

Comments (1)

Re: Military Must Factor in Industry's Surge Capacity

This is the elephant in the room for combating China/Russia. Replacing combat losses/munitions is currently impossible. Thank you great article.

Guy at 7:51 PM
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