DOD pushing new defense industrial strategy to expand weapons stockpiles

By Tony Bertuca / October 25, 2023

Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante, a key official behind the Biden administration's effort to again make the United States an "arsenal of democracy," said today a forthcoming National Defense Industrial Base Strategy will underscore ongoing work to surge global weapons production as a means of deterring U.S. adversaries.

“Production itself is deterrence -- it’s as simple as that,” he said today at the annual Common Defense Conference in Arlington, VA.

LaPlante, who recently returned from more than a week of meetings in Brussels with the national armaments directors from dozens of countries, said international cooperation will be key to expanding global weapons production, especially for munitions.

“The more we work together to expand global capacity of production and sustainment and foster opportunities for even co-development, co-production and co-sustainment, the better off we will be, and it will be a deterrent,” he said.

LaPlante said the National Defense Industrial Strategy, which is expected to be released the first week of December, will, among other things, highlight the role of U.S. allies and partners.

“We’re going to release for the first time ever a National Defense Industrial Strategy,” he said. “A major thread is the increasing role allies and partners have.”

LaPlante highlighted newly signed security-of-supply arrangements with Japan and Estonia as examples of international cooperation that will lead to more joint acquisition projects.

“We will achieve these industrial objectives together,” he said.

The strategy will also note that the U.S. defense industrial base requires stable demand signals from the government that its focus on stockpiling key weapons like the 155mm artillery shell is here to stay, especially if DOD wants large companies to invest their own funds in new production facilities and labor.

LaPlante said DOD shows that resources and production work typically peak within two to three years of a global crisis and then dramatically fall off, leading to workforce layoffs and shuttered production lines.

“This has happened about four times in the past 30 years,” he said. “When folks say, ‘I don’t know why industry is taking a while to ramp up and why they’re not investing,’ it’s because they know that history like we know that history.”

To combat that, LaPlante said DOD is seeking to increase multiyear procurement contracts, though he noted there has been some resistance among congressional appropriators, who question the need to stockpile weapons.

“It’s really been an uphill battle to convince the system both here and across in Congress that we have to do the multiyears that we have to be more predictable in how we buy munitions,” he said. “Now is the time for increased stability in procurement and production.”

But lawmakers, specifically House Republicans, have sent mixed signals on their support for Ukraine, with some opposing the emergency supplemental President Biden has requested.

Four key areas outlined

Justin McFarlin, deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial base development and international engagement, who also spoke at the conference, said the strategy will cover four key priorities: a resilient supply chain, workforce readiness, flexible acquisition and economic deterrence.

A resilient supply chain means more contracts for more companies, with special attention paid to vulnerable suppliers and lower-tier subcontractors.

“Workforce readiness is a big issue,” he said. “When it comes to the option of working the fryer at Chick-fil-A or spending eight to 12 hours at a shipyard doing construction for potentially the same salary, it’s tough to make that sell in some cases.”

Flexible acquisition, McFarlin said, is about accelerating DOD’s processes.

“It’s looking at things like requirements,” he said. “How do we ensure that that’s minimal in scope? How can we start to work with the services around the concept of minimum viable capability? What can we do that will deliver to the warfighter and, using modularity, using software-enabled systems, make updates [and] improve them over time as opposed to trying to get everything packed in there?”

Economic deterrence, McFarlin said, involves efforts like “countering foreign investment” and more closely monitoring mergers and acquisitions activity to ensure companies are not in business with U.S. adversaries.

“We want to make sure we have a visibility into M&A activity, investment activity and that it's not going to be detrimental to our economic security,” he said.

McFarlin also acknowledged the tension between the Biden administration’s domestic message that increased defense spending will boost U.S. jobs, while at the same broadcasting the importance of allies and partnerships when it comes to weapons production.

“DOD is deeply committed to building domestic capacity and growing our economy and creating U.S. jobs and strengthening national security,” he said.

However, McFarlin noted that nothing in the Biden administration’s strategy prevents DOD from waiving various “Buy America” statutes for qualifying nations.

He noted the Pentagon’s opposition to an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would require 100% of all ship parts be sourced in the United States.

“You're not going to find an opponent more against this than the Navy,” he said. “There are international elements on every single Navy vessel. To say 100% U.S. components [must be made in the United States] is not going to deliver the best capability to our sailors.”

When asked whether the United States has the capacity to keep its focus on deterring China, while also assisting in the near- and long-term defense of Ukraine and ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, McFarlin said: “I'd say we don't have a choice.”