Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What the pandemic can teach us about vulnerabilities in our defense supply chain

  You only have to go back to March 2020, when grocery store shelves were stripped bare and toilet paper became a scarce commodity, to understand how vulnerable people are when supply doesn’t meet demand. Unfortunately, the U.S. military can easily be put in the same position.

  America’s defense supply chain—that is, the large network of manufacturers who produce our weapons platforms and equipment—is neither reliable nor secure. Defense production is vital in maintaining a strong national defense, and such fragility in our supply chains is an enormous liability. It directly hinders our ability to win the next war.

  Take for example, our supply chain for batteries. Numerous forms of military equipment are battery-powered, including night-vision goggles, radios, and weapon optics. Complex platforms, from fifth-generation stealth fighters to submarines, all use batteries.

  Batteries will play an even bigger role in the future of military technology. The Army is considering adding electric vehicles to its fleet in order to reduce its dependency on fuel. The Marine Corps is testing miniature drones that can be launched from the underbelly of a rifle. The Air Force is looking to field a body-armor cooling system in order to combat extreme heat.

  But all of these assets depend on batteries, and the production of batteries is currently dominated by China. The Chinese Communist Party has spent the last 20 years making investments to control every single stage of the advanced battery supply chain.

  China oversees the majority of the world’s mining operations and processing sites for critical rare earth minerals. Three-quarters of the world’s “gigafactories”—sites responsible for converting these minerals into battery packs—are located in China. Seventy percent of global lithium-ion recycling takes place in either China or South Korea. Any sort of battery-related product must pass through China at one point or another.

  This means it has the power to halt production and/or the flow of logistics, hindering our ability to equip our troops. So the supply of critical operational equipment, as well as the direction of future military technology, are at the mercy of China, a rival global power that has no intention of supporting American interests.

  The pandemic illustrated how disastrous supply chain disruptions can be. Last year’s shortage of personal protective equipment—which left millions of medical professionals scrambling to find a way to treat the massive influx of patients—was a result of both surging demand and dependence on Chinese and other overseas manufacturing.

  Likewise, the current shortage of semiconductors—which is crippling all technology-related markets—is partly the result of our dependence on Asian manufacturing.

  These disruptions were clear indicators of how fragile U.S. supply chains are. The shortages of critical commodities we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic should be the wake-up call we need to realize that our national interests remain far too dependent on foreign supply chains.

  This dependency becomes even more alarming when applied to our national defense.

  Logistics have always played a key role in the success of military engagements. And as China continues to rise in both power and aggression, the possibility of a large-scale war rises, as well. Such a conflict would require a massive increase in the production of platforms and equipment, similar to that of World War II.

  But our current industrial base is no longer structured to support a large-scale war.

  Our economy is almost entirely based on the service industry, with manufacturing jobs a fraction of what they were 50 years ago. And today’s highly advanced weapons systems are far more complex than those of the World War II era, prompting the Department of Defense to become reliant on sole-source vendors.

  Consequently, the defense industrial base depends on very fragile supply chains. And with current military capacity being so low, ramped-up production would put that much more pressure on these supply chains. Our ability to stay in the fight would be unrealistically contingent on their capacity, speed, and fluidity.

  Our defense supply chains are a clear liability to our national security. If this is left unaddressed, it’s only a matter of time before we see a repeat of the emergencies caused by the pandemic—only this time, it will be our armed forces and global posture that suffer.

  About the authors: Maiya Clark is a Research Associate with The Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense. Walker Venable is a Summer 2021 Member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.

  This article was published by The Heritage Foundation.

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