Repairing military equipment in a high-intensity conflict against a great power competitor should be identified as a gray rhino—a high impact, high probability event that, unaddressed, will lead to dire consequences. U.S. warfighters need a plan to tame this beast, or at least divert it, since the ability to repair equipment in the field will be a significant friction point in any mass great power competition for American ground forces.
The U.S. military’s system was for uncontested logistics, with the ability to conduct depot-level maintenance after evacuating vehicles from the front lines and heavy reliance on a contractor workforce for highly technical repairs. It also relies upon air superiority on the battlefield, which is not a given in combat against a peer competitor. While the Marine Corps published an updated doctrine for logistics in a contested environment in March of this year, it will continue to face the problem of sustaining Marines serving far forward as Stand-in Forces (SIF) or conducting Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations (EABO) in a conflict versus China. Former Commandant Gen. David Berger stated that in a great power war in the Pacific, “It’s just fuel and bullets, that’s what I’m going to resupply. The rest you’re going to have to forage.” These logistical limitations will be acute when repairing damaged military equipment. Absent repairs, it may be impossible for Marines to get back into the fight. Fielding simple and easily repairable weapons and equipment should be a priority for outfitting Marine forces operating within the East Asian first island chain.
Despite disadvantages in size and ammunition supplies compared to the Russian invaders, the Ukrainian military has put up a vigorous defense—and is now on the offensive—through a culture of grit and improvisation widespread throughout the society and its military. One example is Ukraine’s ability to repair in the field by sending mechanics forward, which has proved a combat multiplier. They have successfully repaired donated NATO equipment using parts supplied by the West and leftover Soviet gear by cannibalizing vehicles and using scavenged parts from so-called “boneyards” built up from wrecked equipment. In contrast, a primary problem for U.S. forces is the complexity of the vehicles, weapon systems, and equipment we rely on, frequently making field-expedient repairs impossible. While 3D printing and rapid manufacturing technology may allow for the fabrication of numerous spare parts, even in an expeditionary environment, it cannot facilitate repairs of sophisticated armor nor fabricate semiconductor chips for complicated electronics in devices such as radios, onboard ballistic computers, or guidance systems.
Besides the astronomical costs of many of America’s boutique and exquisite systems, the trade-off between the price of these systems and the systems that can kill them is becoming unsustainable. The Ukrainians have repeatedly demonstrated how cheaper weapons, like the two Neptune anti-ship missiles that sank the flagship Moskva, can destroy top Russian equipment. Russian anti-tank weapons have also made quick work of German Leopards and American-provided Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. Sophisticated Russian electronic warfare has limited the effectiveness of precision-guided weapons. Adversaries are developing various methods of targeting the U.S. military’s high-tech vulnerabilities, from attacking satellites to eliminating GPS use for navigation or precision guidance to preemptive electromagnetic or cyber-attacks and even malicious code implanted in systems through susceptible supply chains.
U.S. adversaries will not allow it to build up the proverbial iron mountain of logistics, nor will it be easy to evacuate vehicles or bring forward parts via “just in time” (JIT) delivery by ship or aircraft. Both the Air Force and Navy will be fighting their own existential battles versus Chinese advanced ballistic and hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks, and counter-space weapons. Designing rugged, reliable, and simple-to-repair weapons can help keep the Army and the Marines in the fight longer. Weapons design and procurement should take that into account going forward.
One of the reasons that the Afghan air force collapsed was the withdrawal of U.S. contractors. With the air force collapsing, ground units also gave up as they were no longer assured of resupply, medevac, or close air support. The U.S. military made the situation worse by having the Afghans move away from Soviet-era helicopters such as the Mi-17 and transition to the more technical and maintenance-heavy U.S. airframes. The U.S. military may face its own issues in high-intensity conflict, as defense contractors have withheld the intellectual property behind some of the newest systems, such as the F-35, effectively turning them into black boxes that only the contractors themselves can fully understand. American farmers can tell horror stories of the problems encountered with high-tech tractors and their fights with manufacturers such as John Deere over the “right to repair.”
The new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JTLV), which weighs 20,000 lbs, is too big and heavy to be easily deployed by the Marines amphibiously in the Pacific and can only be air transported by C-130 or larger aircraft. It has also suffered from issues of reliability and maintainability. A major issue that the Pentagon detailed in a 2019 report on the performance of the JLTV is that military mechanics cannot adequately maintain them without field service representatives from the manufacturer. As of mid-2023, the trucks were still not meeting maintenance goals in testing conducted by Marine and Army units.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. automobile production declined by 93 percent. Shortfalls in the supply of semiconductors to auto manufacturers caused production to lag for years. In reality, U.S. car companies initially decreased their orders, assuming consumer demand would plummet. However, by the time they tried to increase their orders, other industries had already replaced them in the queue for chips. 90 percent of the world’s most sophisticated chips are manufactured by one company (TSMC) in Taiwan, which makes TSMC a critical choke point for modern products, including America’s most advanced weapon systems. The U.S. military should hedge against an over-reliance on microchip-powered equipment to minimize scenarios in which it would find itself in the position of Detroit’s “Big Three” or held hostage by whoever controls Taiwan and TSMC. This further highlights the risks of high-tech weapon systems requiring high-tech repair in high-intensity conflict scenarios.
In World War II, the Soviet T-34 boasted a simple design and was easy to build and maintain. Nonetheless, it had excellent armor, maneuverability, and a powerful gun. The tanks the Wehrmacht constructed to counter the Soviets’ main battle tank were in many cases superior but suffered from excessive degrees of complexity—Tiger tanks took one hundred times as long as T-34s to manufacture—and a resulting need for frequent repairs. Therefore, They were unreliable in the existential fighting across the Eastern Front. Quantity is at times preferable over quantity, and adopting a “high-low” strategy, as Admiral Elmo Zumwalt did in the early 1970s because of budget constraints, could not only reduce costs for weapons lost in combat but may also allow greater redundancy with simple systems easy to repair.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that the Army or Marine Corps will move to less sophisticated weapons and equipment predating the semiconductor revolution. Nevertheless, consideration of decreasing systemic complexity, increasing robustness, and reducing the necessity for repairs in likely austere and minimally supported logistical environments should all be given greater attention for procurement efforts going forward.
Christopher D. Booth is a national security professional, served on active duty as a US Army armor and cavalry officer, and was a fellow in the General Robert H. Barrow Fellowship for Strategic Competition and the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Creativity. He is a distinguished graduate of Command and Staff College–Marine Corps University and graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School and the College of William and Mary.