It is ironic that, despite two decades of U.S.-led conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, it took just a few months of Russia’s war in Ukraine to finally draw attention to the depleted state of U.S. weapons stocks and the vulnerabilities in U.S. military supply chains. In recent months, American military leaders have expressed increasing frustration with the defense industrial base. As the U.S. Navy’s top officer, Admiral Mike Gilday, told Defense News in January, “Not only am I trying to fill magazines with weapons, but I’m trying to put U.S. production lines at their maximum level right now and to try and maintain that set of headlights in subsequent budgets so that we continue to produce those weapons.” The fighting in Ukraine, Gilday noted, has made it clear to military leaders “that the expenditure of those high-end weapons in conflict could be higher than we estimated.”
Tellingly, just 100 days after the United States approved the transfer of Javelin and Stinger missiles to Ukraine, the missile manufacturers Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin warned that it could take years to restore their stocks to pre-invasion levels. As the war drags on, the United States will face not only production line challenges but also difficulties gaining access to semiconductors and raw resources such as cobalt, neon, and lithium—elements that are essential to the manufacture of modern military technology and that China increasingly controls. The United States will have to develop the means to sustain its current weapons arsenals without sacrificing the resources it will need to research and develop next-generation platforms and munitions.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has invested in technology that limits casualties but does not decrease the cost of manpower. It has spent heavily on expensive and scarce technologies for first-strike offensives, largely ignoring the effect of such expenditures on its ability to fund wars and to secure supply chains. Thirty years into this technological push, the United States lacks the technology and resources to maintain support for Ukraine at present levels, much less to deter China from invading Taiwan.
Now that these weaknesses have been revealed, they deserve serious attention. The difficulties the United States has faced in meeting Ukraine’s weapons needs hint at the far greater challenges Washington would likely confront in maintaining its edge in a war fought with more cutting-edge battlefield technologies. A clear understanding of the historical relationship between technological change and