Last month, President Trump ordered a review of the national defense industrial base. The topic often gets interest on the Hill, and occasionally from secretaries of defense, but this effort marks the first major executive review.
This necessary effort will assess the means of wartime production, ability to produce in times of crises, and possible supply chain disruptions – domestically or internationally. Conversations with administration officials indicate the purpose is a strategic study of America’s vulnerabilities, which is critical to maintaining continued U.S. access to relevant resources and capabilities in the event of war.
However, as presently designed, there are three key areas for improvement beyond what the White House has described.
The review covers the capacity of domestic plants, the possibility for single point of failure manufacturing facilities or supply chains, energy usage challenges, workforce education, and the possibility of diminished access to required goods that are sourced from unfriendly countries. My colleague Jerry Hendrix describes the benefits of such a study, with which I largely agree.
The administration acknowledges that global supply chains are not going away, but seeks to understand and mitigate vulnerabilities.
However, a successful report should also include the following topics.
Education and Recruiting
The only mention of workforce training in the executive order is “domestic education and manufacturing workforce skills.” Weapons systems today are more complex than at any point in history, and those who build them are highly skilled. It is critical that the training pipeline for these roles is both robust and sustained (without gaps between programs).
The Trump administration’s campaign focus on blue collar manufacturing jobs would get an immediate boon if this report recommended increased factories and their subsequent employment.
However, the report should consider the full suite of skills that are needed for 21st-century warfare. These absolutely include highly trained manufacturing skills, but modern warfare will also require cyber warriors that can create battlefield effects from 0s and 1s; therefore, programming and computer skills will be vital. The Department of Defense has already indicated its recruiting challenges in this field.
This study should include an assessment of DoD’s ability to ramp up recruiting quickly if needed. How many clearable computer scientists could be quickly recruited? And if advanced cyber skills are needed during the not-yet-war periods of gray zone conflict or to build and maintain cyber defenses, can DoD wait until a crisis arises for a personnel buildup?
Further, automation has caused more manufacturing job loss than trade. This much-detailed economic transition means fewer available positions in manufacturing overall as productivity increases.
A 2016 McKinsey study found 59% of manufacturing tasks could be automated, comprising 90% of the work of skilled laborers. And as manufacturing output has increased 40% in the last two decades, jobs fell by 30%. Cities like Greenville, SC, however, have transformed into modern manufacturing headquarters through local programs that train manufacturing employees in today’s needed skills: operating high-tech machinery, solving complex problems, and working on teams.
There are fewer of these jobs that work with the new machines, but they pay more. The defense industrial base study would benefit from assessments on how today’s (and tomorrow’s) workforce can operate in the new reality in manufacturing to continue to produce complex weapons systems with the appropriate talent.
If this report does not consider how manufacturing has and will continue to change exponentially, it will not be valuable for long.
Anticipating Future Capacities and Needs
The study also needs a detailed analysis on various weapons platforms, their interoperability, and their numbers in the force. By modeling what happens if operations in any part of the world increase, any additional build up that results from this study can be directed to the holes in the force.
For example, at any given point, only half of the naval F-18 fleet is operational, due to the high operational temperature of the wars in the Middle East. This advanced fourth generation fighter is being used in a highly permissive environment, hurting its readiness for other less-permissive operations.
The study should also consider cost savings from timing decisions and their impact on overall capacity. President Trump’s initial FY18 budget did not max out production lines, which hurts overall per-unit costs and hinders the U.S. military’s attempt to rebuild after years of readiness challenges and budget uncertainty. As Mackenzie Eaglen points out, those decisions result in only minor improvements over President Obama’s shipbuilding plans when the Navy is drastically short of its stated 355-ship goal.
It is impossible to predict the future, but assessing the likelihood of a range of possibilities and build-up capabilities would help an anticipated Trump Administration military build-up be used wisely.
While the executive order is a welcome first step to ensuring America’s ability to deter adversaries in times of peace and surge capabilities in times of war, the study would benefit from looking at these additional topics.