Navy destroyers in the Arabian Gulf, March 2018.

Chris Bambery contrasts the US war capacity under Roosevelt with its deficiencies under Biden today, warning a new arms race with China risks a war with calamitous consequences for us all

In October last year, President Joe Biden said that the United States must be ‘the arsenal of democracy’, consciously invoking a phrase from a 1940 speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in case that wasn’t clear enough, Biden said America is ‘the essential nation’ and the ‘indispensable nation’. It ‘holds the world together’.

Biden was addressing the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Let us just leave aside his unconditional support for both, his lack of concern about the reality of democracy in Ukraine, Israel and the occupied territories and much else.

Back in December 1940, Roosevelt was addressing a situation where Hitler dominated Europe and Britain was his only remaining enemy. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war was a year away. But Roosevelt knew that if Hitler could defeat Britain, he would seek global domination and challenge the USA. He was already massively expanding US forces on land, air and sea, and in March 1941 introduced the Lend-Lease Act whereby America supplied Britain with weaponry and much else which would be paid for after the war. I will return to how the Roosevelt administration reacted to the challenge of war.

Today the United States has had to undertake a drastic shift in its military planning. With the end of the Cold War, the US planned on wars that would be short and regional. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine re-wrote that script. The US now has to plan for a war with a great power, China, and to a lesser extent Russia. Those require vast amounts of munitions, as we have seen in Ukraine, and, indeed, in Gaza. What might a war with China involve?

Wargames

Defense News talked to Mark Cancian, who ran a 2022 wargame for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with the US defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. It reports:

‘U.S. submarines would “rapidly fire everything they have” at the multitude of targets, Cancian said, using up torpedoes at a much, much higher rate than the U.S. has expected to do in the past.

Navy jets, too, would join in — but they’d run out of Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles within days, forcing the aircraft to get ever closer to Chinese ships and planes so shorter-range missiles can reach their targets.’

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US stopped making torpedoes. In this wargame, US submarines needed torpedoes to fire at amphibious ships, destroyers and more. The US is now desperately restarting torpedo production. The US Navy and airforce currently has 150 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, but in any conflict with China, Cancian estimates it would require a stockpile of between 2000 and 3000. Meanwhile, the USA has sent so many Javelin missiles to Ukraine that it would take five years at 2002 production rates to replace them, according to Raytheon, the company that helps make them.

Shell shock

The wars in Ukraine and in Gaza have eaten up American stocks of 155-mm artillery shells. Ukraine is firing some 6,000 to 7,000 artillery shells per day. U.S. firms produce 15,000 per month. The US now understands it requires vast stockpiles of these, and much else. The US Army is planning a 500% increase in artillery shell production, from 15,000 a month to 100,000 by 2025.

Doug Bush, the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told National Defense that the Army is ‘on a path’ to be producing 70,000 to 80,000 shells per month by the end of calendar year 2024 or early 2025. He added:

‘In addition to 155 mm shells, the Army is looking to boost production of precision munitions such as Javelins, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, Patriots, Stingers and some others that stocks have been drawn on to support Ukraine. Having a stockpile of precision munitions would be key in a potential conflict against China.’

Until now, 155-mm shells were made at a plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a privately operated one nearby. All of the shells are then transported to one place – Iowa Army Ammunition Plant – where they are packed with explosives.

Now the US Army has agreed with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems that it will build a new, mostly automated facility in Mesquite, Texas, to build more shells, as well as with a company in Ontario, Canada – IMT Defense. In October 2023, the Army also awarded $1.5 billion in contracts to nine companies in the U.S., Canada, India and Poland to boost global production of 155mm artillery rounds.

Supply chains

But this is just one of the US forces’ requirements. The New York Times reports:

‘The shortcomings in the nation’s defense industrial base are vividly illustrated by the shortage of solid rocket motors needed to power a broad range of precision missile systems, like the ship-launched SM-6 missiles made by Raytheon … they are used to defend ships against enemy aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles.

There are only two contractors today that build large numbers of rocket motors for missile systems used by the Air Force, the Navy, the Army and the Marines, down from six in 1995.’

Just before Christmas, a draft copy of the new National Defense Industrial Strategy, obtained by Politico, said starkly that American companies can’t build weapons fast enough to meet global demand. The document stated that the U.S. defense industrial base,

‘does not possess the capacity, capability, responsiveness, or resilience required to satisfy the full range of military production needs at speed and scale … just as significantly, the traditional defense contractors in the [defense industrial base] would be challenged to respond to modern conflict at the velocity, scale, and flexibility necessary to meet the dynamic requirements of a major modern conflict.’

The problem stems from insufficient production and insufficient supply chains – particularly of raw materials, especially minerals. Other shortages slowing production include simple things such as ball bearings, a key component of certain missile guidance systems, and steel castings, used in making engines.

In contrast, it points out that China’s industry, ‘vastly exceeds the capacity of not just the United States, but the combined output of our key European and Asian allies as well.’ The Department of Defense, the report concludes, is to ‘develop more resilient and innovative supply chains,’ invest in smaller businesses and focus more on innovation, plus buying in weaponry from its allies.

Lagging

The US’s Cold War with China means it needs to develop and deploy attack submarines, heavy bombers, and air defence systems, plus switch to electric vehicles. It also needs to re-arm with established weapons: 155-millimeter artillery, Javelin antitank missiles, and surface-to-air Stinger missiles. Washington realises that it is going to have to address nearly half a century of de-industrialisation.

An extra $93 million to the US military budget will re-establish M6 propellant production at Radford Army Ammunition Plant in southwest Virginia. The propellant is used to shoot the shells, but is no longer in production in the United States. Another $600 million would triple the amount of IMX-104 explosive that is made at Holsten Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee. The plant currently produces roughly five million pounds a year with a plan to increase to 13 million pounds. The US does not produce TNT, which is produced by allies, Poland in particular, consequently, the US Army will spend  $650 million to design and construct a domestic TNT production facility.

The National Defense Industrial Strategy pointed to the sorry state of the U.S. commercial shipbuilding industry, which has largely ceased to produce commercial oceangoing vessels. The US relies on seagoing transports to supply things such as pharmaceuticals, rare earths and digital devices. Forbes reports that the disappearance of commercial shipyards means it is difficult to find workers with the skills required to build, for instance, nuclear submarines:

‘The pace of submarine production at the nation’s two nuclear shipyards is lagging due to workforce challenges and a fragile domestic supply chain that contains numerous “single points of failure”.’

The Wall Street Journal argues the US can afford a bigger military but can’t build sufficiently to meet its needs:

‘“In terms of industrial competition and shipbuilding, China is where the U.S. was in the early stages of World War II,” explains Eric Labs a navy analyst for the Congressional Budget Office, adding “we just don’t have the industrial capacity to build warships … in large numbers very fast”.’

In the past two years, the Chinese navy has grown by seventeen cruisers and destroyers; it would take the U.S. six years to build the same number under current conditions, he said.

Minerals

A re-armament programme requires accessing huge amounts of minerals: iron, copper, zinc, lithium, aluminium and much else. That is not so easy:

‘Mineral supply chains also face disruption risks as China, the top global producer and import source for many such minerals, has already shown a willingness to place export controls on key minerals and manufacturing technology. For example, China is the world’s largest producer of natural and synthetic graphite—which has both electric vehicle and military applications—and also the largest import source for the United States for natural and synthetic graphite. However, China now requires licenses to export certain graphite products, which will likely disrupt graphite supplies to the United States. China is also reportedly mulling export controls on manufacturing technology for rare earth magnets, which are necessary for electric vehicle motors and various defense systems. As the Department of Defense warns, “Dependence on foreign sources of minerals and on foreign production of lithium-ion battery components creates vulnerabilities for the [Department of Defense] and the US [electric vehicle] market”.’

China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia are currently the biggest suppliers of critical minerals to the USA, but that is clearly not viable. The US Department of Defense is looking for new suppliers, exploiting minerals at home, stockpiling supplies and re-cycling.

China dominates the global lithium-ion battery industry. Its companies supply 80% of the world’s battery cells and account for nearly 60% of the Electric Vehicle battery market. Some US companies that produce batteries rely on lithium-ion cell components produced by Chinese manufacturers.

The Atlantic Council points to another problem:

‘But not all lithium-ion batteries are the same. The US military needs specialized batteries that are larger, of higher quality, greater power density, and packaged to withstand significantly more rough treatment than those needed for commercial purposes. Should the US military suddenly find itself in need of more specialized batteries, the Pentagon might not be able to obtain them because foreign lithium-ion cell producers have little incentive to stop producing lithium-ion batteries for their commercial customers and divert production to the specialized products that US military battery manufacturers need. If these suppliers are controlled by Chinese government interests, they may even be incentivized not to provide military products for the United States, even if offered financial incentives.’

Last March 2023 the New York Times reported:

‘The Biden White House this month proposed a 51 percent increase in the budget to buy missiles and munitions compared with 2022, reaching a total of $30.6 billion.

And that is just the start. The White House’s proposed budget just for Air Force missile procurement is set to jump to nearly $13 billion by 2028 from $2.2 billion in 2021.’

None of this is going to be easy. Companies like Lockheed struggle to hire workers and eliminate shortages of key components needed to meet the Pentagon’s demand:

‘Despite efforts to reshore and bolster the manufacturing base, reaching the production capacity needed to replenish stockpiles and prepare for the possibility of full-scale conflict with China remains improbable. The current replacement times for critical inventories average over a staggering 13 years at current production capacity rates. Many of America’s advanced systems are produced on a very small number of assembly lines by an even smaller number of manufacturers. Production requires input from a shrinking labor force with knowledge of these systems, and supply chains are composed of rare earth metals, chips, and obscure mechanical parts from across the world that are very difficult to secure.”

That was then, this is now

So, let’s return to Roosevelt and the challenge of World War II. American industry provided almost two-thirds of all the Allied military equipment produced during the Second World War: 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks and two million army trucks. In four years, American industrial production, already the world’s largest, doubled in size. Ken Burns points out:

‘War production profoundly changed American industry. Companies already engaged in defense work expanded. Others, like the automobile industry, were transformed completely. In 1941, more than three million cars were manufactured in the United States. Only 139 more were made during the entire war. Instead, Chrysler made fuselages. General Motors made airplane engines, guns, trucks and tanks. Packard made Rolls-Royce engines for the British air force. And at its vast Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Ford Motor Company performed something like a miracle 24-hours a day. The average Ford car had some 15,000 parts. The B-24 Liberator long-range bomber had 1,550,000. One came off the line every 63 minutes.

America launched more vessels in 1941 than Japan did in the entire war. Shipyards turned out tonnage so fast that by the autumn of 1943 all Allied shipping sunk since 1939 had been replaced. In 1944 alone, the United States built more planes than the Japanese did from 1939 to 1945. By the end of the war, more than half of all industrial production in the world would take place in the United States.’

Within a month of Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the establishment of the War Production Board, under the direction of Donald Nelson, a former Sears Roebuck executive. A year later, in 1942, William Knudsen of General Motors was commissioned as a lieutenant general and assigned to the office of the undersecretary as director of production.

The War Production Board was a private-public partnership. A system was set up that resembled a ‘command economy’, to some extent, but which also allowed industries to profit. It was staffed by corporate executives brought to Washington. The result was that between 1940 and 1944, the US government placed $175.066 billion of prime defence contracts with US corporations. Two-thirds of these awards went to only 100 companies and 20% to only five companies.

Ford built a factory that could turn out the biggest, most destructive bomber in the American arsenal, the B-24 Liberator, at a rate of one per hour. The Willow Run Bomber Plant became the largest factory under one roof in the world. The Washington Post called Willow Run ‘the greatest single manufacturing plant the world had ever seen’, while The Wall Street Journal called it ‘the production miracle of the war’.

Foreign Affairs contrasts World War II military production with the situation today:

‘The government owned nearly 90 percent of the productive capacity of aircraft, ships, and guns and ammunition. This is in contrast to today’s climate, where commercial items have made up over 88 percent of new procurement awards since 2011, and private capital invests over $6 billion a year in the defense industry.’

Following the end of the Cold War – because it no longer believed it would face a great-power war – the USA cut back on its military spending. In 1993, the CEOs of America’s biggest military companies were invited to a dinner at the Pentagon, which became known as ‘The Last Supper’, to be told by the Pentagon that the defense budget was about to be slashed. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry told them, ‘We expect defense companies to go out of business. We will stand by and watch it happen.’

Following this the companies began consolidating. The number of contractors for tactical missiles went from thirteen to three, and for fixed-wing aircraft, the number went from eight to two. Defence contractors chased government contracts for expensive, experimental weaponry to obtain larger profits to the detriment of lower-cost small arms and ammunition production.

Today, US military production is dominated by the ‘Big Five’: Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. They continue to contract for high-cost advanced aircraft and missiles such as the B-21 stealth bomber and the LGM-35 Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. As Undersecretary of Defense William LaPlante told The New York Times in March 2023, the United States ‘really allowed production lines to go cold and watched as parts became obsolete.’

Rebuilding stockpiles of weaponry is not just about building new plant. They require a workforce to produce the weapons and as Foreign Affairs points out, that is a problem:

‘… stockpiling weapons is impossible given the dearth in skilled American labor. Defense contractors have struggled to recruit workers for years in an industry that often requires vocational training or two-year degrees from its employees. Educating and training future defense workers takes time—time that Ukraine does not have at the moment. Weapons production cannot be willed into existence. To achieve a more stable, trained workforce, the United States must support job creation across all employment sectors, not just defense, so that Americans have the requisite skills and training needed in times of crisis.’

Calamitous

Of course, it is in the interests of the Pentagon and the arms industry to talk up the need for massive expansion in production. But the reality of a war with China, which the US must plan for, speaks.

The money spent on arms will, as always, be at the cost of health care and welfare for the many. The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs points to another problem:

‘Shifting the US DIB to wartime footing also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prediction, making war more likely by further militarizing US foreign policy, and potentially feeding new arms races.’

The New York Times reports:

‘[Kathleen H.] Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, said the goal is not necessarily to prepare to fight a war with China — it is to deter one from breaking out.

‘“Still, we must have the combat credibility to win if we must fight,” she said.’

Beijing will read that accordingly and build up its own military capacity in response. It might also calculate that it might be better not to allow the USA the time to rebuild its stocks of weaponry.

Meanwhile, think of all the US and Chinese planes and ships shadowing each other in the South China Sea. Throw in some more and wait for an accidental confrontation. A Cold War can switch to a Hot War in seconds with calamitous results for us all.

One, final point. In the aforementioned war game, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the US and its allies hold the island, but at a terrible cost to both sides. It also begs other questions. If America had to throw everything at China what would its allies, Russia and North Korea do? Without America to aid and supply it, Israel could face an attack on a much greater scale than 7 October. In that scenario, fingers would be reaching for the nuclear launch buttons in a number of different capitals.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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