Pentagon Officials Now Realize US Munitions Stockpiles Aren’t Nearly Big Enough To Take On China
- In a whirlwind of hearings in March, Pentagon leaders revealed how much the Ukraine war has cut into American munitions stockpiles.
- Massive rates of ammunition consumption from the war have caused the Pentagon to reevaluate needs for a potential China contingency.
- “One of the big lessons coming out of Ukraine is the incredible consumption of conventional munitions and the conduct of what is really a limited regional war. So, a great power war, if that were to ever happen — God forbid it does — the consumption rates would be incredible,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said.
As reports of a munitions shortage increased following rapid withdrawals from American arsenals to supply the war in Ukraine, Defense leaders in testimony before Congress revealed deep concern about the U.S.’ ability to sustain a contest with China.
The U.S. has devoted millions of rounds of munitions to Ukraine since Russia invaded more than a year ago, draining U.S. stockpiles and setting off alarm bells in Congress and the White House on the state of America’s arsenal in light of higher-than-expected consumption rates in Ukraine. Senior leaders in the Department of Defense and military service branches, in statements to justify the Pentagon’s budget request for the coming year, warned that the U.S. has massive hurdles to overcome to rebuild to the level necessary to counter China, and remains vulnerable in the meantime.
“I’m concerned. I know the secretary is … we’ve got a ways to go to make sure our stockpiles are prepared for the real contingencies,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on March 29.
DOD has directed the military to review war plans and reassess munitions expenditure estimates to inform future budget requests, Milley said.
For example, the number of Javelin anti-armor missiles the U.S. donated to Ukraine during the first six months of the war equals seven years of production, according to research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At normal manufacturing rates, it would take up to eight years to replenish U.S. arsenals of precision 155 mm rounds, Javelins and HIMARS ammunition as of January.
“I think the biggest thing we learned was the expenditure rates. It’s caused us to go back, to take a look at our own wargaming and analysis, what our predicted expenditure rates would be, and the questions and assumptions we made,” Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on March 29.
Ukraine fires between 3,000 and 7,000 rounds each day, or the equivalent of yearly orders for a small European country, according to manufacturer Nammo in a statement to the Financial Times. It would fire orders of magnitude more if supply were not so constrained.
Russia, meanwhile, whose military doctrine typically emphasizes overwhelming artillery fire concentrated against enemy positions, at one point was launching somewhere around 50,000 rounds each day, according to The New York Times, citing a senior NATO official. Russia’s artillery fire plummeted in early 2023, a sign the U.K. Defense Ministry took to indicate constrained supply and contributed to inability to achieve battlefield gains.
One class of munition, the 155 mm round, has become a particular chokepoint. The U.S. has sent more than 1.5 million 155 mm shells for the Howitzer system to Ukraine, as well as an additional 6,500 GPS-guided rounds, according to a fact sheet that was accurate as of April 4.
For comparison, the U.S. produces about 15,000 artillery rounds per month, the NYT reported. Most of those — about 14,000 monthly — are consumed in the U.S. military’s regular peacetime training exercises, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said, according to The Associated Press.
The Pentagon pledged never to allow American stockpiles to fall below critical levels, but officials worried as early as August that stockpiles had fallen below what they considered comfortable levels in a conflict scenario.
The Biden administration’s $842 billion budget request for fiscal year 2024 — the largest ever in nominal terms — includes $30 million for building up the weapons manufacturing sector and for DOD to “buy the maximum number of munitions that American industry can produce,” Austin told the House Armed Services Committee.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Congress on March 30 the service will begin multi-year contracts for munitions, a process that could provide defense contractors with the guarantees it needs to invest in more production capacity. Contractor Lockheed Martin announced the first multi-year contract valued at up to $4.5 billion over five years for Hellfire and JAGM missiles on Monday, Reuters reported.
In addition, the Army plans to invest $1.45 billion to boost production of 155 mm shells to 85,000 monthly by fiscal year 2028, the service’s undersecretary, Gabe Camarillo, said on March 28, according to Defense News. Production should reach 24,000 by the end of 2023, he said.
Gilday, and other defense officials, say the war in Ukraine has informed their understanding of what is needed to supply a large-scale, industrial conflict, like one that could occur if China invaded Taiwan.
“One of the big lessons coming out of Ukraine is the incredible consumption of conventional munitions and the conduct of what is really a limited regional war,” Milley told a Senate committee on March. 28. “So, a great power war, if that were to ever happen — God forbid it does — the consumption rates would be incredible.”
Gilday said the Navy had expected expenditure rates to fall in a modern conflict as munitions have become more advanced — and expensive.
But conflicts can extend beyond just a few days, requiring sustained munitions supply, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said at the same hearing.
In a conflict with China, munitions consumption would be enormous, CSIS found in a 2022 wargame simulating a U.S. military response to China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2026. The U.S. would expend all of its long-range, precision-guided munitions within a week, and the rest would last just a few weeks longer.
“These gaps undermine deterrence — the linchpin of the United States’ defense strategy — because they reveal to all that the United States cannot endure a lengthy war,” Seth Jones, senior vice president at CSIS, wrote. Adversaries could see the U.S. as constrained by its paltry munitions supply and feel emboldened to take actions that are contrary to U.S. interests without fearing a response.
Meanwhile, Beijing is piling up munitions and other advanced equipment at a rate up to six times faster than the U.S. and would have easy access to its industrial base during a Taiwan contingency, Jones wrote. In contrast, the U.S. would have to depend on a supply chain that can transport troops, weapons and supplies 7,000 miles across the Pacific ocean.
“Ukraine’s war has taught us that we must transition from just-in-time stockpiles of weapons and munitions to just-in-case stockpiles,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, according to the AP.
The Navy requested $6.9 billion for weapons systems in its fiscal year 2024 budget, $2 billion more than the year prior, and the Air Force wants $4.7 billion compared to $2.3 billion enacted in fiscal year 2023, according to Task and Purpose.
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