It’s Time for President Biden to Invoke the Defense Production Act
The thought of a weak defense industrial base and depleted stockpiles should haunt policymakers.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made clear that there are gaps in the U.S. defense industrial base, which will prove costly in Ukraine and other geopolitical hotspots if not addressed. The most important one is undoubtedly Taiwan, the democratically self-ruled island that Beijing asserts as its own, which is reliant on U.S. military aid to keep a credible defense. But Taiwan isn’t getting the help it needs, and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission identified “diversion of existing stocks of weapons and munitions” to Ukraine as a key reason for delays and backlogs in delivery of promised defense articles to Taiwan. The Biden administration must invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ensure Taiwan has the capabilities to defend itself.
Invoking the DPA is the best and only immediate solution to surging production capacity. Under the act, the president is authorized to “allocate materials, services, and facilities” for national defense and emergency preparedness purposes and instruct private companies to prioritize contracts from the federal government. The DPA has been increasingly used for defense and non-defense purposes alike:, former President Donald Trump instructed 3M to produce N95 respirator masks, and General Motors to produce ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic, and President Joe Biden ordered defense contractors to boost production of Virginia-class attack submarines in 2021.
Although some lawmakers have recently criticized the Biden administration’s use of the DPA, such scrutiny has primarily focused on non-defense purposes such as solar panels and biofuels. Nevertheless, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CN., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-WI, have already called for invoking the DPA for Stingers and Javelins. “The cupboard is empty, or it will be very, very shortly unless the president invokes the Defense Production Act to provide that demand signal on an expedited basis,” Blumenthal said in an April 2022 hearing.
Taiwan has been unable to receive billions of dollars in military equipment to defend itself amid China’s increasingly coercive activities in the Taiwan Strait. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obligated to provide Taiwan with the necessary equipment for self-defense. But more than $19 billion of weapons and equipment has not been delivered to Taiwan. This includes a 2019 $8 billion purchase of sixty-six F-16 fighter jets and a 2015 agreement to supply more than 200 Stingers and Javelin shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles to Taiwan. Without adequate weapons to defend itself, Taiwan will be unable to create the strategic environment that would deter Beijing from pursuing “reunification”—an objective that Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping has promised to fulfill in his lifetime.
Amid the United States’ struggles with its defense industrial base, China continues to pursue an ambitious military modernization program consistent with Xi’s desire to transform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class” military by 2050. Such modernization includes a large-scale reorganization of the PLA that “encourages synergy between and within military, defense industrial and academic communities.” China’s state-owned and state-controlled enterprises allow for state-led industrial policies that can divert all resources into the military. No more than 4 percent of China’s military equipment was modern in the 1990s. At present, most of its equipment is. As Oriana Skylar Mastro and Derek Scissors point out in Foreign Affairs, China will have more than 450 naval ships within ten years—a number the United States will not reach until 2045.
Dwindling stockpiles of arms and armaments are making it increasingly more difficult to give Taiwan the weapons it needs. Take, for example, artillery, a crucial and decisive tool on the battlefield. The Russian military describes artillery as “The God of War,” and used it to puncture German defenses during World War II. Similarly, the United States outfired the Chinese three-to-one during the Korean War’s Chinese spring offensive, facilitating a successful defense. And at present, Ukraine is doing the same thing with HIMARS and 155mm howitzers against the Russians, demonstrating a fierce and formidable resistance. Of course, artillery shells are an essential tool in the war theater. But a U.S. defense official characterized the stockpile of 155mm shells as “uncomfortably low” due to the United States giving more than 1 million artillery rounds to Ukraine.
A low stockpile of artillery shells is incredibly concerning because, in an invasion scenario, Taiwan’s military would certainly need artillery to stop an amphibious assault. It would take four to five years to rebuild the 155mm ammunition stockpile at the current non-surge production rates. And it’s not just artillery shells. Since the start of the war, Ukraine has received one-third of the United States’ Javelin missiles and one-quarter of its Stinger missiles to repel the Russian invasion. The dwindling U.S. arsenal, according to Mark Cancian, senior advisor at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, is likely reaching a point where defense strategists are beginning to question whether war plans can be executed. At the very least, depleted stockpiles exacerbate already prolonged delays in weapons deliveries to U.S. allies and partners.
To replenish stockpiles and, in turn, ensure that Taiwan is armed to the teeth to deter forceful unification, the United States needs first to address production capacity and the delivery of defense systems and platforms to Taiwan. To do so, the current administration must invoke the Defense Production Act.
By all means the act is crucial to bolstering depleted stockpiles, but it does not address underlying issues of decreased, in some cases closed, production lines. To illustrate, the United States currently buys roughly 1,000 Javelins a year. Even if the United States decided to build as many Javelins as possible—6,480 a year—it would take thirty-two months before delivery, and anywhere from three to four years to replenish the number of Javelins already sent to Ukraine. Moreover, the Department of Defense has not purchased Stingers for more than eighteen years and closed its production lines in 2020. Greg Hayes, Raytheon’s chief executive, pointed out in April 2022 that there is “a very limited stock of material for Stinger production.” In other words, even if defense contractors were compelled by the federal government to prioritize producing weapons such as Javelins and Stingers, they may still be unable to boost production capacity.
Nonetheless, preparing for war costs much less than fighting a war. That is why addressing our dwindling U.S. stockpiles is essential. Task and Purpose’s Jeff Schogol said it best: “it’s time for the military to stock up on things that go boom.” The thought of a weak defense industrial base and depleted stockpiles should haunt policymakers. At the very worst, it could lead adversaries to conclude that the U.S. military is not as strong as it portrays itself to be. Hal Brands of the American Enterprise Institute warned that unless U.S. stockpiles are replenished, the United States might as well “get ready for ‘missile famine’ if there is a great-power war.” U.S. allies and partners are signaling they are ready to take on looming threats; they will need a defense-industrial base that they can rely on.
Pieter van Wingerden is a fellow at the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College.