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ALPERT: The U.S. Is Not Ready for War

i vis pacem, para vellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). 

America is not prepared for war. The U.S. military faces many enemies, including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. Still, our foes also include any number of non-state actors, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

Agents of these enemies are illegally entering America from our southern and northern boundaries.

The United States faces threats seemingly everywhere. At the end of 2023, the Financial Times reported 183 military clashes, and the Geneva Academy was monitoring more than 110 armed conflicts worldwide. 

Despite global disorder and manifold dangers, some Americans hide behind collective programs and social justice nonsense, and others find excuses by spewing sadly sickening echoes of the “America First” gangs of the 1930s to justify America’s retreats.

The foreign threats to Western democracy have mutated and increased in the sheer destructive potential of weapons. Yet, our military budget has shrunk as a percentage of gross domestic product to about 3.4 percent from a high of 9.5 percent in the 1960s.

The military faces many problems in preparing for war. Enlistments have come up short of 2023 needs. The Army was 18 percent below its requirements. The Navy came up short by 6,000 recruits, and the Air Force was 10,000 enlistments shy of its targets. The Coast Guard can’t crew 10 cutters and 29 stations because of recruitment deficiencies. More disturbingly, 77 percent of young Americans don’t qualify for military service.

The U.S. military not only lacks people, but our capacity to produce modern weapons is frighteningly limited. According to a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report, assuming recent depletion rates, the United States is using 155mm ammunition at a rate that will take a long period to rebuild inventories to pre-Ukraine levels, given current production capacity. 

The United States produces only 93,000 155mm shells annually and has transferred more than 10 years of regular production (five years at a “surge rate”) to Ukraine since September 2022.  

The 155mm ammunition is not alone in America’s penury of weapons. Javelin missiles will take more than five years to replenish inventories, and HIMARS inventory replacement will take more than 2.5 years. Stingers will take 6.5 years to replace inventories, and Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System replacement times are unknown. Perhaps we are slow-walking supplies to Ukraine because we can’t walk fast.

The military has cut the number of weapons it has available. For example, the Air Force flew 600 bombers at the end of the Cold War, but it flies 141 today. Not only that but the workhorse of the bomber fleet, the B52, dates to the 1940s. 

Likewise, the Navy has up to 40 percent of its submarine fleet under repair. Even if that number is cut in half, the numbers are troubling. Compounding the maintenance problems is that the United States is producing about 1.2 attack subs annually, 2.8 boats short of the number needed to meet our commitments.

These acquisition problems are simple to identify. America can’t produce the “stuff” of war anymore in the quantities needed. The number of prime military contractors has shrunk to six from 50 plus at the end of the last century. 

Two more examples are sufficient to demonstrate America’s lack of weapons production capacity. Today, we have three companies supplying fixed-wing aircraft and another three supplying tactical missiles (down from eight and 13, respectively) at the turn of the century.

Other problems exist with our approach to warfighting — there has been little integration between highly advanced civilian systems and military applications (with the notable exceptions of Starlink and cloud computing). Not to mention the foolish idea of using the military as part of the war on climate change.

Likewise, the military primarily deals with heavy equipment instead of small cheap arms such as drones.  There has been some progress in these areas, but entry into military contracting is difficultAnduril, a 2017 startup, is struggling, and SpaceX and Palantir had to sue to bid on military contracts.

We can’t turn to Europe for help since the high-spending Brits have 150 tanks, and France has an inventory of heavy artillery pieces that Russia loses a month in Ukraine (90). Germany has enough ammunition for two days of fighting and Denmark has effectively disarmed.  Since Europe is entangled in other problems, these facts are not likely to change soon.

The military is aware of these problems. The 2022 National Defense Strategy states, “Our current system is too slow and too focused on acquiring systems not designed to address the most critical challenges we now face.” 

Given a divided, dysfunctional Congress and country, the question remains how we will address these deficiencies.

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